(This article first appeared in the November 2015 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
I suffer from progressive hearing loss; I am profoundly deaf in one ear, and get periods of complete deafness in the other. I share this not to evoke sympathy, or excuse my rubbish call recognition, but to urge you to lay down some internal audio tracts for the future, because most people’s hearing fades somewhat as they age.
Despite my audio illiteracy some of my most cherished memories are of wild sounds. Just as aromas can unexpectedly transport you to a past time and distant place, so my inner ear evokes recall of deeply embedded, joyous occasions.
You would rightly expect that some of these memory-captured sounds are bird song. While, by and large, I may not be able to distinguish a tit from a ptarmigan on call alone, there are, nevertheless, some bird sounds I do know… less for the singer, more for what they recall.
The sudden fly-by screams of swifts announce summer. A burst of wren song in the garden lifts your spirits. A deafening Cetti’s call takes you to the waterside and a raptors’ ‘keeing’ takes you to rolling hills and crags. Every curlew call reminds one of Scottish moorlands and lowland marshes. A wood pigeon on a summer evening transports me to a childhood fishing lake.
If I get a distant snatch of newly arrived nightingales, I am taken back to nights spent in a caravan in an ancient Kent wood where I lay listening in the early hours of a summer night, trying to see if this vocal maestro ever repeated a phrase.
I can replay my first African dawn chorus at will. Competing doves like croupiers calling ‘rien ne va plus’ and ‘place your bets’ from two species and a third repeatedly announcing his name ‘I am the red-eyed dove’. A deep oop-oop-oop of a hoopoe mingled with harsh metallic starlings. Kop-kop, kop-kop from a coucal every two seconds echoed over dew-laden grass. A woodpecker probing for grubs in the rotten tree outside my room; the sound that got me from bed to balcony, to see twittering firefinches and cordon blues, their colourful garb muted by a misty morning.
Oddly my most deeply ingrained sound memories of foreign travel are not of bird song but other species.
Driving ‘home’ as dusk fell in a Kenyan national park we stopped by a puddle of a pond, more marsh than mere, and were assailed by a frog chorus. We sat enthralled by the bubbles and croaks, rising in pitch and volume as fast as the sun sank. On that same trip, as we walked back from dinner at our lodge at the foot of Mount Kenya, the trees were suddenly full of the most terrifying screaming banshees which, we later learned were the calls of tree hyrax, a diminutive, arboreal relative of elephants, looking like a cross between a guinea pig and a koala bear with fangs!
Most wonderful and evocative of all was the sound that filled the dawn deep in a Thailand forest clearing… white-handed gibbons’ whooping calls. What a privilege that was, a truly enchanting serenade.
There are songs and sounds for everyone. Just as you can be a fan of Dvorak or Dylan, Mozart or Morrissey so wild sounds and bird songs mean different things to different people.
I would be willing to bet though, that there are two bird songs that top the charts of most UK bird lovers. They are loved not for their versatility, nor their rarity. Indeed the fact that they are so every day is part of the charm. Walk into your garden on a winter day and the robin will faithfully voice his scratchy, mournful song to reassure you that all is well with the world. But top of the pops for so many of us is the plaintive, yet haunting beauty of the evening summer song of our beloved Blackbirds.
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