Song Thrush

A sweet morning… The small birds are singing, lambs bleating, cuckow calling, the thrush sings by fits, Thomas Ashburner’s axe is going quietly (without passion) in the orchard, hens are cackling, flies humming, the women talking together at their doors, plum and pear trees are in blossom – apple tree greenish.

Dorothy Wordsworth, Journals, May 6th 1820

There is a song thrush who lives over the road from my house, and makes a bit of an auditory spectacle of himself (if that is possible – and in all probability it is a him, not a her, since roughly 30% of female songbirds have lost their song, probably so as not to attract attention to their nests).

The song thrush is notable for the short repeated units of its song – by fits, as Dorothy Wordsworth had it – and its seemingly bottomless repertoire (not unlike the nightingale, its close relative).

And it is disappearing. Only 1,144,000 breeding pairs are left in the UK (seems like a lot, if I’m honest, but then when I heard there were only 3,200 tigers left in the wild I was struck – incorrectly – by how many tigers 3,200 actually is, when you think about it).

We have had the same song thrush over the road from our house for the past three years (I assume it is the same one), and yesterday, listening to him go at it for a while, it struck me that he or she had learnt some new tunes. I have no idea if thrushes cycle back through the same set of refrains, or if every iteration is different, like a sort of aural snowflake. I suspect the former. But repetition does imply identity. My son sings the same song over and over when he is busy with something, but it is never quite the same song twice in a row.

Anyway, I cannot be sure, but it seemed to me that the thrush has picked up some new tricks. Perhaps it is a way of keeping the competitive advantage fresh. Perhaps it is a natural mutation, like a sort of personal season-long game of Chinese whispers. Or perhaps it is just a new thrush, who has evolved the song of his forebears. And perhaps, in the end, that is how any one learns a language – be it English, or Chinese, or Thrush: by continually cycling back, and tweaking the tunes each time you do.

Dawn Chorus in Cambridge

One of my students complained today about the dawn chorus. Not so much a complaint, in fact, as a lament – she had been woken up before five o’clock the last two mornings by the birds on Parker’s Piece, opposite her apartment. She wanted to know why they were singing, without really wanting to know at all.

The dawn chorus begins very early in England at the time of year, sometimes as early as four o’clock, and there is a distinct order of birds – the blackbird is almost always the first to sing, followed by the robin and the wren. For some reason the song thrush, a close relative of the blackbird and the robin, is a (comparatively) late riser.

You will hear blackbirds and robins in virtually any urban environment, but Cambridge is a more rural town than most. It still has extensive tracts of common grazing land running through (or very near) the centre of town – Stourbridge Common, Coldham’s Common and Midsummer Common for instance – on all of which cows are regularly grazed (inconveniently, if you happen to be behind them as they cross from one part of the common to another). A herd of Red Poll cows on Midsummer Common is, incidentally, an excellent local source of meat, supplied by CamCattle (I can vouch for its quality).

I have also regularly seen kingfishers, heron and cormorants on my way to work, straying in from the countryside that fringes the town. I didn’t point out the full extent of these rural delights to my drowsy student, however. I merely recommended earplugs.