I was going to write a bit more about typography today, but, after all, it’s Just- spring (when the world is mud-luscious) , and the suburbs are bubbling over with birdsong – so here’s something a bit more Aprilish (and nuts to TS Eliot).
Sadly, I have a tin ear for birdsong. I’m almost entirely reliant on mnemonics (something to do with having a wordy sort of memory, I suppose), which means that I can readily identify, ooh, maybe three birdsongs.
My favourite mnemonic is for chaffinch-song. It’s pretty well-known (I could’ve sworn I first read it in Gilbert White, but I’ve just checked and it turns out I didn’t). The comparison is with the delivery of a fast bowler: the galloping run-up (pa-pa-pa-pa-pa), the convulsive gather and step at the wicket (papapa) and then wheee (the hurtle of the ball down the pitch).
‘Little bit of bread and no cheese’ is the best-known mnemonic, handily recalling the yellowhammer’s song. But it’s one of those mnemonics (like the one about Columbus sailing the ocean blue) that could be anything, really – ‘better put a sugar in your tea’, or ‘had a pint of bitter in north Leeds’, say.
‘Wet my lips’ is a pretty good rendition of what the quail says, or at least ‘wet my’ is pretty good for the first part; I’d say the second part sounds like another ‘wet’, or possibly ‘wick’, but I suppose ‘lips’ has the advantage of being relatively family-friendly.
You’d think that ‘Go back! Go back!’ for the red grouse’s call would owe more to poetry than to reality, it being a call heard mostly in the sort of bleak and distant place in which ‘Go back!’ generally makes sound sense – but when you listen to it it’s an eerily accurate rendition (more accurate, at least, than the word ‘sausages’ as a rendition of the noise that dog used to make on That’s Life!).
Other mnemonics are less wordy: the grasshopper warbler‘s fishing-reel, for example, or the retreating steam-train mimicked by Bulwer’s petrel (I can’t find a recording of its other vocalisation, which has been transliterated as ‘Was yer, was yer, would yer, was yer, was yer’, and sounds worth a listen).
Beyond these memory aids – and excepting, of course, the birder’s standard onomatopoeic toolkit of caws, quacks, coos and cuckoos – birdsong is rather a closed book to me (as some kindred spirit tweeted yesterday: ‘The birds are talking to one another in their stupid language’: I like to think the reality is something like this. I also like to think that swifts are constantly going AAAAAAHHHH! because they’ve just woken up and found themselves flying through the air at 70mph; in their place, I’d go AAAAAAHHHH! too).