Friday, 26 March 2010


I bought an MP3 player a couple of years ago, because I listen to music all the time at home, and I thought it would be a good idea to be able to listen to music while on the move. I hardly ever use it. For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t consider using it while cycling, but even when I’m merely out walking I’d rather listen to the birds.

In fact, I’ve heard it argued, plausibly, that birdsong was the inspiration for the development of music in primitive human societies. However, I’m not suggesting that Fanling is awash with natural melody, because it isn’t. My conjecture is that had early music been inspired by the birdsong around these parts, we might have ignored Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and the Beatles, and all other intervening steps in the development of music, and jumped straight to Michael Tippett, John Cage and Harrison Birtwistle.

One thing that is certainly absent is an authentic songbird, a local equivalent of the English blackbird or thrush. Instead, every bird around these parts has a disappointingly brief, albeit distinctive, call. Some are more mellifluous than others, but most are shrill and at least slightly discordant. I’ve found it impossible to formally identify any of the main ‘players’, which tend to remain well hidden in the foliage when they kick off, so I’ve taken to giving names to birds based solely on their calls.

The ‘demented referee’ is a typical example: I’ve never actually seen one, but I’ve given it this name because its call sounds like a sequence of perhaps four short, sharp blasts on one of those old-fashioned whistles with a pea in it. It is almost possible to hear the pea rattling round inside the whistle, and you can sense the red card being pulled out as the referee rushes to the point of some particularly nasty piece of foul play.

Another is the ‘swanee whistler’. This ‘performer’ has a call that sounds like a swanee whistle as the plunger is pulled out. This is usually repeated between five and twenty times at roughly one-second intervals, and the amusing part is that it starts quietly, almost as if the whistler is tuning up, but then gets progressively louder. It is as if the bird thinks “not loud enough; try again”. And, as often as not, as the calls grow louder the note cracks, as if the swanee whistle is being overblown to produce a higher harmonic rather than the natural note.

Did I mention that the birds around here are LOUD? And none is louder than the ‘telephone ringer’. This bird’s call sounds like a higher-pitched version of the two-note ringtone of a 1970s telephone fed through one of those old-fashioned reverb amplifiers that used to be popular in the 1970s. If you were to hear it for the first time from fifty yards behind you, you would turn around and exclaim:

“What the hell was that?”

It is that loud. In fact, I suspect that some plant in the neighbourhood is a natural source of amphetamine, which then gets into the local food chain by being eaten by cicadas (which are also extremely loud). These are then eaten by the birds. Even the spotted doves, which are also common, coo three or four times louder than I’ve ever heard doves coo anywhere else.

There is also a bird that sounds like a malevolent cross between a kookaburra and a rooster, and another that sounds as if someone has inadvertently triggered a burglar alarm, although this latter may be the telephone ringer in panic mode, so I’ve refrained from giving it a name. And then there are the birds whose calls are not especially distinctive but that grab my attention because they usually turn up in groups of three or four in the tree in front of our house and sound as if they’re arguing over something or other, perhaps over who is loudest. When they appear early in the morning, they are as likely as not to drown out the alarm clock, which does make me wonder, on some mornings, why we bother with such a device in the first place.

It is sometimes said that birdsong is the music of the gods, but if this is the case, on the evidence of my own ears, then the heaven inhabited by these gods is the same heaven that was reduced to a state of chaos by the Monkey King in the well-known Chinese legend. Monkey, with his famous ‘as-you-will’ cudgel, would have felt right at home in the countryside around here.


  1. Oh wow, I love my mp3 player. I use it in the car and at the gym. Also while walking. Of course, my walking area is in the middle of town around a school park. There are some birds, but not anything cool--oh except for the hawk that was eating a squirrel once.

    Interesting thing about the birds and music. I spent the afternoon watching Guns,Germs and Steel, about why some groups of people were able to evolve large complicated cultures, and some remained hunter/gatherers. Somehow, that music/bird thing seems like the next installment,like how the arts evolved. hehe

  2. Don’t misunderstand me. My MP3 player is a great piece of kit, and indispensible when travelling. I can’t imagine listening to an airline’s choice of music when I can listen to a random selection from a 700-track playlist of my favourite songs instead.

  3. Dennis:

    Another engaging post. I have always liked listening to bird calls. But thankfully they are not as loud as they are there except the cuckoo which can get very loud. A fun element with the cuckoo is that if you mimic the call, it actually responds thinking that it's another cuckoo esp in the mating seasons when males and females call out for attention.

    I have not heard a birdsong, as you call it. Perhaps I have to travel else where to hear a song.

    All said and done, the post is quite a read (like all the others). It almost seems like a research work. You know about so many things. I am quite in awe of your knowledge and writing.

    Keep them coming. It's my pleasure to stop here.

    Joy always,

    P.S: Hope you are doing well now. Has the fever and flu left you yet? Take care :)

  4. Susan, if you’ve never heard a songbird in full flow, then you've missed one of nature’s best free shows. A few years ago, I was walking across fields near my home in the UK around sunset when I heard a blackbird in the top of a hawthorn tree. It sang a three- or four-note phrase, then repeated it perhaps two, three or four times, note perfect. Then another phrase, again note perfect. Then another. And another. I stood transfixed, and I only noticed that it had gone dark when the blackbird stopped singing.

  5. hahahah! its really obvious that not all birds hav that soothing voice.. even sum songbirds hav a squeeky and shrill voice that can make ur eardrums sore! :D And I cant imagine listening to an owl in the middle of the night, without lights on.. it would be like a theme in a scary movie! Wanna free urself from the pressures of ur everyday lyf? The beach. :)


Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions. If you don’t have time to comment but enjoyed the post, please click the +1 button on the right-hand sidebar (near the top of the page).