Avian love song…and a mysterious hush!

I’ve been recording the birds. I know I’m not the first, but as I hit record, creep back from the open window and back into bed, I wonder why I’ve never done this before? I’m not exactly an early bird (excuse the pun). But many of us are finding ourselves doing things we’ve never done before. Tuning into things with fresh ears. With the skies and streets quieter, the air clearer and, well, nowhere to go…indefinitely.

So I record my first ‘dawn chorus’, using a small stereo recorder on the windowsill. I don’t have to set an alarm – the birds take care of that! Listening ‘live’, I enjoy every tiny detail, dense and varied songs/calls, mimicry, call and response, even an owl joining in from afar. Feel free to have a listen while you read?

I feel the same kind of stupid tingling excitement as when managing to record a favourite song onto cassette from the radio! (“I’ve GOT this!”) Always missing the beginning. Always!! I resolve to record again the following morning, this time capturing the start, the earliest awakening of tiny sounds

The expected tentative awakening turns out to be more of a razzmatazz opening number! A blackbird (I think) who I recognise from the day before, is the soloist at close range – and what a crooner?

“What better way of advertising to a passing female that you are here and would make a fine father for her chicks than by having a clear, loud and recognisable song?” RSPB

Well, if this male hasn’t fathered chicks by sunrise…..? Another bird, fainter, in the distance, responds to every call with imitation and counterpoint. I feel like an eavesdropper on an exchange I will never fully understand the meaning of. Whether an interested female or a rival male, the fact that only male birds sing turns out to be false, interestingly (cue more research).

But where are the others? There are definitely less members of the choir, and none of the richness and variety of the day before. In fact, hardly anything. I’m going to get technical here. Compare the waveforms from day one and two at the same time:

However woefully unscientific my analysis of the situation, I begin to plan day three – just as two cats start wailing (you can hear toward the end of the blackbird recording). Aha! Maybe the difference is threat. Fear. After the initial blackbird showstopper, only faint twittery, nervous calls can be heard. The audible presence of cats seems to coincide with a reduction in the volume and density of bird noise, but also the quality, variety of the song (or ‘vocalisations’ as I’ve just learned they are called). The auditory mood has swung from joyous to nervous. So domestic cats could be having a powerful effect on birds and their ability to sing and breed (cat owners don’t judge me!) but what’s fascinating is how fear affects the quality and nuance of communication.

I think back to all those tense performances where the hands won’t quite make the effortless shapes I want them to and the voice won’t improvise as freely as I know it can. Music is, after all, just another form of communication, and it is unlocked in moments of overcoming. Overcoming fear, I suppose. I’m going to try and notice when I’m recording this month, how many proverbial cats are wailing in my ear? It certainly brings a new meaning to the phrase: “Cat got your tongue.”

Oh and day three of ‘project dawn chorus’?

I slept.

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