ETCETERA: COUNTRY LIFE
Sunday 28 May 1995
I'm always tempted in spring to try and compile a bird-song Top 10. But it is almost impossible for us, as post-Romantics, to judge the songs for themselves, free of the context of personal memories and associations. According to some recent straw polls, serious birders favour the curlew, whose bubbling song and haunting flight-calls evoke the kind of places that bird-watchers like best: winter marshes, high moorland, Dales hay- meadows in June. It is one of my favourites. But so is the whitethroat's song, as scratchy and unstructured as a bramble bush, yet redolent of the tangled hedges of childhood summers.
At the end of the 18th century, James Bingley drew up a league table of "the comparative merits of the singing birds of our own island". He awarded species marks for five qualities. The nightingale, quite rightly, came top on just about every criterion; but now that it is down to a few thousand pairs, chiefly in south-east England, would have to be disqualified as a "popular" songster today. The skylark was second, though it beat the nightingale for "sprightliness", and the linnet fourth, scoring high on "compass" and "execution". There are some oddities, signs perhaps of the taste of the times. The blackbird's languorous, conversational song, for instance - a favourite today - wins just four points for "mellowness" and nothing for "plaintiveness".
But we need to pull back a little here. What are we doing, making, as one species, aesthetic judgements on the communications of others? Presumably thrushes (low scorers across Bingley's scale) have exactly the compass they require. Yet the musicality we hear can't simply be dismissed. Only the most blinkered behaviourists now believe birdsong to be a purely functional business for proclaiming territory and attracting mates. Many birds improvise, mimic and sing for such needlessly long stretches that explanations based on selfish gene machismo can't be taken seriously. Birds plainly enjoy the sound of their own voices. Perhaps we have got the analogy the wrong way round. Perhaps bird-song is the template for our own musical stirrings - which is why we find it so affecting, and why it isn't sentimental or anthropomorphic to call the dawn cacophony a "chorus". !
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Caitlyn Jenner's mother Ester thought her daughter, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, had transitioned for money
- 2 Charles Kennedy 1959-2015: A gifted, compassionate politician whose career was cut short by the 'demon drink' - latest news
- 3 Alton Towers crash: Four seriously injured and 16 guests trapped as Smiler ride carriages collide
- 4 Ann Summers survey reveals the UK's favourite sex position
- 5 Gay teenager 'forced to have sex with his own mother' to 'cure' his homosexuality, campaigners in India say
Britain's Got Talent producers apologise for not making Matisse dog double stunt 'clearer'
Britain's Got Talent 2015 final: Jules and Matisse used secret dog double for winning tightrope act
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 9: 'The Dance of Dragons' sees Jon Snow return to The Wall after epic Battle of Hardhome
Britain's Got Talent final 2015: 90 viewers complain to Ofcom about Alesha Dixon and Amanda Holden's 'revealing' dresses
Black Angel: Lost Star Wars precursor to be made into crowdfunded feature film
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination
Migrants in Kos: Photos show real tragedy after Brits abroad complain of 'awkward' holidays
British tourists complain that impoverished boat migrants are making holidays 'awkward' in Kos
Michael Gove determined to scrap the Human Rights Act – even if Scotland retains it
Threat to scrap Human Rights Act could see UK follow Nazi example, warns UN official
Church of England 'one generation away from extinction' after dramatic loss of followers