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.
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.
And the nightingale. One summer dusk I walked past a local garden full of rhododendrons and lime trees, and a spontaneous rush of unbelievable birdsong issued from it with just the kind of overgenerous abandon that devastates poets. It's simply got to be a nightingale, I thought. ``Thou, light wing`ed Dryad of the trees,'' (I tried to remember my schooldays' Keats lessons), ``In some melodious plot ...'' singing, was it? of, yes, ``summer in full-throated ease.'' The trouble is I cannot actually say that it was a nightingale I heard that evening. For all I know it was just a very excited song thrush or one of the small finches with operatic ambitions. How on earth can I write an ode to the bird if I have doubts about its species? And what about Eric Maschwitz, anyway? Was he absolutely positive it was a Nightingale that Sang in Berkeley Square? It seems to me that pigeons frequent that place more noticeably.
Sometimes writers have been more to the point. Keats himself doesn't do at all badly at the close of ``To Autumn'' with ``... and now with treble soft/ The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;/ And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.'' And the 18th-century poet John Clare, who was intimate with all sorts of birds, superbly conjures up the sound the lapwing or pewit makes as it distracts you from its nest: ``The pewet whirred in many whewing rings/ And `chewsit' screamed and clapped her flopping wings.'' He captures the integration of movement and sound so well that it would be difficult not to know that bird even encountered for the first time.
Who else? Well, there's Gilbert White, of course, the great 18th-century naturalist. His ``Naturalist's Journal'' is certainly rewarding, though at times he is stunningly brief in his observations. On Jan. 8, 1768, all he says is: ``Moles work. Cocks crow. Crows crie. My provisions are kept in the Cellar. Birds pull the moss from the trees.'' On various days after that he notes a bird here, a bird there, singing - the hedge sparrow, the song thrush, the chaffinch, the fieldfare, even our friend the yellowhammer. But all he says is that they ``sing.'' They are signs of the awakening year, but it is the fact of their first singing, not the distinction of their sounds, that seems to catch his attention.
But then, gradually, more descriptive words occur - still unpoetically brief, but informative: the colemouse and long-tailed titmouse ``chirp.'' The ring-dove ``cooes.'' The stone-curlew ``clamours'' - now we're getting somewhere. The goldfinch whistles.
Then, in April, with birds ``singing'' on every side, the unwordy gentleman at last obliges with a whole paragraph on the titlark - ``a delicate songster'' which spreads out its wings in flight and ``chants'' as it descends. If you search, you can find some excellent, if still taciturn, descriptions of birdsong in White's Journal. The nuthatch, for example, ``makes its jarring, clattering noise in the woods.'' Or ``snipe pipes in the moors.'' Or ``linnets whistle inwardly as they sit in flocks.''
But for longer remarks on the subject, White's ``The Natural History of Sel-borne'' is more richly endowed. One of the letters in which this book is set out (No. XLIII) characterizes the ``notes and language'' of different sorts of birds. Some of these are marvelous. The ``amorous sound of a crow,'' he writes, ``is strange and ridiculous.'' Rooks ``in the breeding season, attempt sometimes in the gaiety of their hearts to sing, but with no great success.'' The woodpecker ``sets up a kind of loud and hearty laugh.'' While the ``fern-owl or goat-sucker from dusk till daybreak, serenades his mate with the clattering of castanets.''
Of all White's birdsong descriptions I have come across so far, that of the blackcap in Letter XL is most appealing. He has ``a full, sweet, deep, loud and wild pipe; yet that strain is of short continuance, and his motions are desultory; but when that bird sits calmly and engages in song in earnest, he pours forth very sweet, but inward melody, and expresses great variety of soft and gentle modulations....''
The only problem is that even Mr. White could get things wrong. According to his latest editor, Richard Mabey, ``White failed to distinguish between the very similar songs of the blackcap and the garden warbler. Indeed he makes no mention of the garden warbler at all. The bird was almost certainly quite common in Selborne (as it still is today), but it is secretive in its habits, and when White heard it singing from cover he presumably took it for a blackcap.''
Which, for those of us who can't tell the voice of a dodo from a duck even in bright sunlight, is actually rather comforting.