My last project in all its variations ended with bird song:
The Birds keep singing.
They were the last words said in the performance. The last words heard in the podcast. The last words written in the script.
The Birds keep singing.
It was a declaration of hope, an ode to continuing, light breaking. I didn't know then that bird song in the morning is them singing that they are alive. I am still here, they tweet. This is still my territory, they whistle. I found enough food in the day to survive the night, they caw.
Last year, I realised that the birds are always here. In the way that you might step back to really look at the face of a person you've know for years. An obvious epiphany, but up to this point I had been scared of birds since I saw a pigeon shag another one to death outside the Alley Cat Cafe on Watford High Street.
I started to hear the bird song that has always been here. These animals around us always. Even if it is just those scuzzy pigeons that you see. And beneath those urban bushes there are sparrows and starlings and blackbirds and tits. They are not exotic, but neither are we as we dwell in cities, towns, and villages all about this small isle. Series of islands. We carry on and get on with our day. Finding food, family, surviving, building homes, existing often in ignorance alongside others. The birds they have free movement and a method of travel that we cannot mimic without even the most rudimentary technology: they lift their wings and fly. We cannot fly unaided.
I felt the itch of a new obsession; I bought a book about birds from The Works, I bit into my fear of too close beating wings and dead feathers and I started looking and listening more closely, I bought a really terrible pair of binoculars in a charity shop that were probably a free gift from an insurance company 20 years ago, I went to a walk and talk and spot with The Urban Birder, I bought more books about birds from charity shops and a guillemot pin badge from the RSPB. I tried to remember any facts gleaned from my unasked for Young Ornithologists subscription paid for by an aunt I rarely saw when I was little. I realised that there are a lot of people that are interested in birds. And a lot of artists eventually become obsessed by flight.
I talked birds over tea with musician Katy Rose Bennet, we wrote on big pieces of paper and listed birds that we liked. I proclaimed I wasn't only interested in the glamorous ones, the photogenic ones, I wanted to spot pigeons and sparrows and crows as well. She talked of latin names and songs she had written. She sent me voice notes singing of a Heron's flight that still flies around my head.
So I proposed we have a bird exchange, 12 Birds a Year throughout 2019. I pick a bird, any bird, one a month for the year and I write something; a scrap, some facts, lists, bits and I send it to her , I put it on here and she creates a response. We aren't dealing in pressure or expectation, sometimes a months might be late (its the 1st of February already), just a call and response.
In the hedgerows and in the trees, up above you while you shop, or walk, or drive there are wars of territory going on. Demonstration and display of fertility in song. Its that time of the year, though it may not feel it, spring is on it's way. Look towards the frosty ground. The trees may be bare twigs, framed on bright cold blue skies. Or perhaps its grey overhead, the slush of the sleet, there are skeletal branches looking for feet to rest on them.
But the birds are singing.
They, the birds in different breeds and sizes and behaviours, are fighting for a place to make a nest, make a mate when the time is right, they brave and mark their boundaries by song. Posturing and swelling, calling for a mate, making a home in the breadth of their voice.
On the edges of suburbia in parks made from old farm foundations and dead space, birds can be heard against the background of the city; cars driving, dogs barking, children talking, playing, screaming, sirens calling, squeal of tires.
But birds can be heard.
Their song louder than should be possible in January going to February in what feels like the darkest of months. But the equinox has passed in December and our days are getting longer, there is more light. We are waiting for re-birth in crocuses and snowdrops even though snow is predicted to drop, soon. You may be covered in it already. I think its snowdrops and crocuses that are pushing their way through the ground. I've definitely seen a daffodil already, before January is even over.
Once you hear the songs, really hear the songs as more than background noise, you can't un-hear it. You always know that its there.Bird song is louder than summer. Or perhaps I'm just hearing it more. Blackbirds, Robins and their aggressive, possessive song, coal tits, blue tits, caw of the crows, coo coo of the pigeons but if your lucky, high in pitch, in trees above you'll hear:
Sweet whistling and gargling, two to four refrains. Staccato, trilling, an alarm call, a battle cry.
The Song Thrush
Here's how wikipedia or birdapedia, or birding websites write it:
filip filip filip codidio codidio quitquiquit tittit tittit tereret tereret tereret
Some make ventriloquists, these are throats that can mimic your phone or your car alarm. They steal song from other breeds of birds, their own parents, and sometimes even mimic the scream of the cats. That will confuse them hunting. Song Thrushes are said to have 100's of phrases of songs learnt or made in their back throated catalogue. Like a really good session musician.
The song thrush that I became obsessed with seeing, hearing was pointed out to me, in surprise by someone on hearing it so clear on the edges of a city. In a human made park made just for moments like this. Or smoking and illicit encounters.
I hadn't thought of Song Thrushes, just thrushes as one kind of bird, unfortunate in name that brings to mind itchy crotches and Cannisten Combi. But I'm sure the naming of the bird Thrush came first.
I am told, I read that no other bird family is spread so wide across the world, apart from in Australia where they are not quite as common, though they have been introduced, they stick to the Suburbs of Melbourne. From the family Musicapidae, I had to get my computer to say it for me to get the pronunciation right.
M U S I C A P-A-DEE.
M U S I C A P- A-DEE
M U S I C A P-A-DEE
Music at the forefront of the thrush. Or thats how I hear it. Read it.
Now, our Song Thrush is busy this time of year, they are making sure of their territory. They are a late riser, not up with blackbirds and the robins and the others at Dawn who singing their song to let others know that they are still alive, they survived the night, they can provide food. Song Thrushes, no, they rise a little later, starting song after dawn as if a headline act to the early support. An opera singer saving voice.
Once I know this bird exists, not just a Thrush but one that specifically sings I search for it on every walk I do around the park where this Song Thrush has staked their territory. The Dog on clinking lead, I cling my eyes to those bare branches of the tree where it was first pointed out to me.
I loose the Song Thrush on the same day I find a stray dog without collar or home. A big white Staffy, anxious muscles in his head. The Staffy is collected and taken away, home it is hoped as he chipped, but the next day I cannot see or hear the Song Thrush.
I strain to hear the Song Thrush signature 'run of musical phrases repeated two to four times'.
I train to see the song thrush form, beige dappled belly, short tailed, stocky.
I think the stray dog has scared the bird away, I think I have scared the bird away. On walks I see coal tits fluttering in miniature flocks, well two or three or four together, nut hatches I think, sometimes too small to really believe in. Magpies, always magpies and those wood pigeon. Robins aggressive on the ground.
On screens and books I read:
A largely solitary bird, can be shy and keeps themselves hidden when hunting and foraging. Loves a tree or a bush in parkland. 23 or so centimetres. Hunts with head cocked to the side to try hear for its pray. Breaking snail shells open with stones. That sweet song bird. Often warded off by the bigger lower voiced, less sweeter and more confident blackbird and its hops. The Song Thrush usually stays where it is once territory is found though some have been known to form loose flocks to fly to Spain for winter sun.
Song Thrush's latin name has been given by a german man in the mid 1800's.
Turdos meaning Thrush or Throstle in old english. And Philomelos is taken from Philomela. Philomela is the name of a woman. A woman from Greek mythology, a story that is told so much and by so many. So familiar and so many times.
A woman is raped by a man she was told to trust. Her sisters husband. He blames his lust, a lack of fault, she is too wanton for him. Her voice replies in clarity, knowing the shame is not hers. So he cuts out her tongue to silence her words. She picks up cloth and needle and sews the story of her attack. Sends it to her sister. Who reads the pictures in the cloth, rage rising at the men who take what they want. So, the sister, the wife of the rapist kills and cooks their only son to feed as a feast to the father. That man. And while he's wiping his lips, sucking fingers dry of fat, the two sisters present him with cold truth. He's digesting his son, the meat off his bones as they speak. The man he rages and runs for the women but they are already fled. As they run they prey to the gods to really give them flight.
One sister, the wife is turned into a swallow, ducking and diving, quick as a dart. And the other Philomela, is turned into a song bird.Philo meaning loving, Melos meaning Song.
Her voice returned to her but only in song.
So the german man in the mid 1800's named the Song Thrush its latin name in honour of a woman who was silenced.
In nature it is the male's that sing the song. Prettiness and delicacy are rewarded as a female tendency when naming animals in old language.And The Song Thrush is well known by the male cannon for their song and their behaviour.
Song Thrush, Turdos Philomelos,
Poets you have been done well by;
Edward Thomas and
You once were the most common bird in this land, so the history goes, people kept you as pets, in cages just to hear your voice. I wonder if it was your alarm call, your battle call or your 2 to 4 refrains that you would sing behind bars?
Football teams have adopted you on woven logos for their shirts. The Throstles is another name for West Bromwich Albion. See you sit on their badge, Song Birds in the crowd of football chanting. It is said you were a pet from the original pub the Albion Team started in.
One of you, Song Thrush, in a cage above the bar. Singing last orders instead of a bell.
Just before dark, your throat is full. You sing your loudest then. Warding off invaders, your notes floating further than the others.
Protecting your territory,
Inviting a mate.
Perhaps you just sing for song. To practise the sounds you've learnt. You work as a pair when the female finds a mate whose song she wants to hear. Impressed by the range. Together you make clutches with more eggs laid than chicks that survive, 1 in three eggs hatch and then live long enough to build their own nests and sing their own songs.
Thats life in the park, in the wild. In the trees. Survival.
The female builds a home and the male sings the alarm.
Both of you forage. And there have been solo females who mark their own territory. I think they still do it in song, they have got their voice.
I take the dog just before the sun sets and find the Song Thrush again returned or never gone, crunch my feet over gravel to hear the 2 to 4 refrain. Look up into branches at the squat dotted bird.
Capture the song on my phone.
You are singing for the cycle to begin again.