Birds, marvellous birds


One of the great joys of this time of year - yes, at last it is spring - is the birdsong. In one south Dublin suburb you may be wakened at 5 a.m. by the lovely, clear, strong notes of the song thrush. It is still dark, but from his perch at the top of a cypress nearby, he pours out his contribution to the day's awakening. The song, we are told by David Cabot, may carry for 400 metres. And while the same naturalist tells us that the blackbird gives us a melodious warbling which is distinguished from the song thrush by its lack of repetitive phrases, the votes of this particular house go to the early bird - the song thrush. A matter of opinion. May be prejudiced by the bad temper of the blackbirds who fight bitterly for the small space of the pond, chasing away even their females. But what a performer is the thrush, for he can be heard again in the evening once more into the darkness.

And the robin, who has a nest in the ivy just outside the bedroom of this house. He has various alarm notes and what is called a scolding call, but can also give us as the naturalist notes, "a melodious, somewhat plaintive warbling." His song has sometimes been compared to that of the nightingale (in England, for, unfortunately, we are not, with freak exceptions, visited by that lovely creature.) And the famous song about a nightingale singing in Berkeley Square was a case of mistaken identity, according to Richard Mabey in his book, Whistling in the Dark. Similarly when William Cowper, normally good on birds, wrote "To the Nightingale which the Author heard singing on New Year's Day", he was mistaken, for nightingales on New Year's Day are "6,000 miles away from Britain" on that day, according, again, to Mabey.

Singing birds are not only a source of pleasure to the listener, but they can be therapeutic. You will remember Hubert Reeves, a Canadian astro-physicist, who fell seriously ill after a spell in the Sahara, where he lay night after night watching the heavens and particularly for the Hale-Bopp comet, culminating in an operation for peritonitis from which he awoke to find that plastic tubes had been inserted "everywhere" in his body. The thought of death became attractive to him. But he dedicates the books he wrote on his recovery, Oiseaux, Merveilleux Oiseaux which he wrote afterwards to the birds which helped to bring him through convalescence: the robin, the wren, the warbler and many others in whose company, he says, he wrote this book. "I am grateful to them for the happiness they brought to me."