Good Friday was, as the Irish say, ‘a soft day’. The Scots have a different word for it: ‘dreich’. I could hear the rain pattering on the skylights as I lay there in the grey early morning, but still, I had to get up, to leave my warm bed and head out to the woods. I had a feeling that something was going on there, and I didn’t want to miss it.
At first, there was so much bird song that it was like a mess of wool that I needed to untangle. I picked out the wren and robin, the blue tit and the great tit. I put the crow and the parakeet to one side. Still, something was new, something I hadn’t noticed before. A Green Woodpecker yaffled and I named him. But what was it, this new song?
I walked on, trying to identify the source. Everywhere, there was the sound of water.
But then, I saw who was singing.
Undeterred by rain, he was throwing his song into the treetops. Weight for weight, Song Thrushes have one of the loudest of all bird calls.
In his poem ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, Robert Browning talks of the Song Thrush:
That’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could re-capture
The first fine careless rapture!
And, listening to the bird, I could see what Browning meant: each phrase is repeated, as if the bird is riffing on a theme, trying things out. Indeed, in Mark Cocker’s ‘Birds Britannica’, he points out that an individual bird has about 100 different phrases to choose from, which the bird seems to do at random. Some song elements may be passed down from one generation to the next. But there were some notes in the song of this bird that reminded me of everything from the sound of a dustcart reversing to a mobile phone tone, and I wondered if he picked up inspiration from a variety of places. I thought that I could even hear the sound of parakeets and other birds woven into the Song Thrush’s song.
As with so many birds, Song Thrush numbers have declined by about two thirds in the past twenty-five years, and the London birds were also down by thirty-five percent. The RSPB has the Song Thrush on its Red List of birds that need urgent conservation action. In the capital, though, numbers have been increasing during this century. Coldfall Wood seems to suit them – it’s wet enough along by the streams for them to find the invertebrates that they eat, and the mature trees provide lots of nesting and roosting spots. One thing that we can all do for Song Thrushes is to cut out the slug pellets – Song Thrushes are great eaters of snails, and use a special stone, called a Snail Anvil, to hammer into the shells. I shall be keeping an eye open to see if I can spot one.Song Thrushes are sometimes confused with Mistle Thrushes, but one easy way to tell them apart is that the blotches on the Song Thrush’s chest look like arrowheads, whilst those of the Mistle Thrush are more circular. The Song Thrush is also much smaller, but I find this difficult to gauge unless you have the two species lined up next to one another, like felons in an identity parade.
I went on my way, through the rain.
What is it about the sound of this bird that lifts the heart? It feels as if it’s woven into my subconscious. Although I’m not aware of ever having listened to a Song Thrush before, it feels familiar, like an ancestral memory. Some days, I could fall on my knees lamenting for all the creatures we have lost, for the habitats destroyed and the oceans that we are poisoning. This song reminds me of how much we still have to protect and to fight for.