• Charlie Moores

Our birds are re-awakening

You know that feeling you get when you first wake up that something is slightly different but you can't quite put your finger on what? A change in the air. Nothing sinister or out of place, just a sort of familiar something that registers with a nudge rather than a shake, a prod rather than a sharp poke? Well, this morning it was there. And as the birder inside of me sat up and took more notice, I realised what it was: a Song Thrush was singing.

That may not seem like a particularly striking moment of frabjous joy, but it is. After a grey winter of hearing little more than our Jackdaws (who seem to have bickering built into their DNA) and a rather whispery Robin who in mid-January is still in practice mode, to hear a full-throated Song Thrush belting out a huge range of whistles and flutes and clucks and chucks as if spring was already here and if it wasn't well, he didn't really care because he felt good and it was time to give the vocal chords a stretch and let the neighbours know he was up and he was alive - well, it was absolutely wonderful...

And I bet I knew where he was even without opening the curtains to check: right at the top of a huge Oak that dominates the garden next to ours. And there he was indeed. A just-about brown silhouette against a still half-asleep sky. Clinging to a topmost twig, shouting from the mountain top, layer upon layer of unbridled enthusiasm being fired out in every direction as he turned his head and looked around to see what the response would be. An internal applause from me of course, while hoping his boldness didn't attract a local Sparrowhawk who could have snatched him from his perch before Mr Thrush had even seen him coming.

He didn't stay too long (not long enough for me to work out the best place to snatch a recording anyway, but there will be plenty of time for that in the Spring). The rain started belting down and where he was sat out in the open it must have felt like being pelted with hundreds of tiny stones. But his performance, short as it was, was remarkable. He may have been practising in a dense thicket or in an ivy-covered hollow somewhere, but to me it sounded like he had picked up exactly where he had left off in the summer, the notes still on his tongue, his head filled with phrases and variations he had already mastered. Like pressing play and filling the room.

We have three 'true' thrush species within earshot that compete to fill what in a few months time will be a true dawn chorus. The Blackbird, which always sounds a touch too mournful and restrained to me. the Mistle Thrush, which I love to hear but which has a far more limited range (and whose song, to be honest, can get a little bit monotonous after ten straight hours a day from April into May); and the Song Thrush, my personal favourite, exuberant and chaotic, a little bit unhinged, but unbounded and free, a bird that skips the rehearsal and hurtles straight into the performance because he's that damn good and he knows it.

Robert Browning described the Song Thrush's song in his poem 'Home-thoughts, from Abroad' as "That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, Lest you should think he never could recapture The first fine careless rapture!" That repetition is how I learned to recognise the Song Thrush. He really does repeat everything, but it's not a simple copying of a handful of phrases, more a trying out of phrase after phrase after phrase (an individual male may have a repertoire of more than 100 of them) and being so impressed with how they sound that he has to try each one again just to make sure they're as good as he thought they were the first time, with maybe a little extra volume added here or a little roll in the throat added there.

And now he's woken up, perhaps sensing the slight lengthening of the day, and I've a feeling where he leads others will have to follow. I hope so. Birdsong is the glue that holds the morning together for me, and I'm so ready to jump right in and get sticky!

  • [BTO Data shows a steep decline in Song Thrush abundance beginning in the mid 1970s. Short-term increases beginning around 2012 mean that the long-term decline is now classed as moderate rather than steep, but the population remains substantially lower than in the late 1960s. The environmental causes are unknown but are likely to include changes in farming practices, particularly land drainage and possibly increased pesticide usage. It is Red-listed as a species of conservation concern.]

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© 2021  Jo Hanlon-Moores & Charlie Moores