How do you tell the piping of snipe from a linnet's whistle?
ARE you one of those lords of creation who immediately know the boom of the bittern when you hear it in a mist a mile away? Do you instantly recognize the ``pheet-pheet-pheet'' of the meadow pipit? Is the yelp of the avocet second nature to you? The croak of the ptarmigan? Then to you I doff my hat.Skip to next paragraph
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Only twice, to date, have I been on a nature trail or bird-spotting spree - once in New York State, and once, just the other day, by the Firth of Forth in Scotland. On both occasions the thing that struck me speechless with admiration was the tiptoeing assurance of the leader when she (in N.Y.) or he (in Lothian) would suddenly freeze, cup hand over ear, cock head, press finger on lips and LISTEN intently. Suppressing a ghastly tendency to giggle at such tense moments, I would be duly rewarded with the Final Pronouncement, issued like a bulletin on the current state of nature: ``Yes, yes, a Melodious Warbler - Hippolais polyglotta - at ten-twenty-one-and-a-half.'' Or (breathed with the satisfied certainty of the expert): ``Yup. Yellow-bellied sapsucker halfway up trunk of red buckeye nor' nor' west.'' Green envy is not, I believe, one of my more frequent temptations - but then! Faced with all that evidence of positive identification by song alone! How I wish I could just get one bird right, just once, just by its chirrup or its churr or its chatter.
I exaggerate, of course. There are bird songs and shouts and cries and calls that I can identify. A hoot or shriek at midnight I can guess is an owl. The bubbling echo of the curlew I think I'd know anywhere - it is the epitome of the wide, longing, open spaces of meadow or marsh - a sound on the air of tremulous evocation. The sea gull, wailing on the salt breeze, I know, but couldn't tell the common one from the herring other. The cuckoo in spring, unless it's a small boy fooling, I'm pretty sure about. The cooing of wood doves and the cawing of crows are also manageable. But when I stray beyond the obvious I'm at sea. Even common little birds like garden tits or robins, thrushes and blackbirds I can't name if they are noisy but unseen in a bush. Starlings and sparrows - what do they actually sound like?
As children we had a 78 r.p.m. record with snatches of birdsong on it. It did nothing for me. On the other hand, the information instilled in me regarding the yellowhammer was unforgettable: that he sings repeatedly, ``A-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese!'' But although this was fascinating, it seemed to suggest more about his possibly rather dull diet than about how he sounded. I still listen for those words ringing from the promising brambles when out in the country, but I've never been quite certain of hearing them.
Nor am I really helped nowadays by such bird-book tips as ``in spring you have a good chance of hearing the Chiff-chaff's song; it sings its own name.'' Or even by such a marvelous description as this of the whimbrel's cry: ``a whinny-ing, rippling, tittering peal.'' A little light dawns when a tree sparrow is said to go ``chip, chip'' and ``teck, teck'' but don't rather a lot of birds go the same way?
You'd think the great writers and poets would help .... But take the little high-flying skylark, for instance. Is Shakespeare any use with his ``Hark! hark! the lark''? It is unfortunate, certainly, that the whole, very beautiful line isn't generally quoted: ``Hark! hark! the lark at heaven's gate sings,'' but even then it doesn't seem to be much of a guide out in the field. And Shelley's ``Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!/ Bird thou never wert,'' in itself so unkind on the ear, with its more mellifluous stanza-end describing how the skylark pours its ``full heart/ In profuse strains of unpre-meditated art'' - though it does have a point to make throughout its next 20 stanzas about how poetry is easier for birds than humans - is hardly an ornithological textbook. If I heard a skylark without actually seeing it - always so much higher up than you expect - I wouldn't, in all honesty, know its song from a fieldfare's or a magpie's.