The Nimble Musicians of the Air (Isaak Walton)

Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness

Dear Readers, I am currently reading Joe Harkness’s ‘Bird Therapy’, which describes how the author found birdwatching to be a solace following a breakdown. I am finding it inspirational, because it not only tells the author’s story (which is fascinating), but is also full of lots of practical advice. Harkness has structured the book around the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ which have been endorsed by the mental health charity MInd. They are: to connect, to take notice, to give, to keep learning and to be active. The author points out that these five things are intrinsic to birdwatching, and it also felt like a helpful way for me to think about my relationship to my blog.

I have long thought that contact with nature is deeply healing: one problem with the way that most of us live these days is that we are lonely and disconnected from the world around us in a way that even our grandparents weren’t. Before I started this blog, I couldn’t have named more than half a dozen of the ‘weeds’ that grow in the garden. Trees were a mystery. The great benefit of Bugwoman the Blog is that it has been an incentive to actually go out and use my senses, and one thing that has delighted me to excess is that I have learned to identify the calls of some of the birds that surround me. There is a meditative quality to sitting in the garden and just listening that is deeply calming, and there is something exciting about hearing a bird that I haven’t heard before. I thought that, today, I would share with you a few of the experiences that have raised my spirits over the past few years. Do let me know what birdsong has meant to you!

It was a wet Easter Friday morning in 2015, and I was trudging around Coldfall Wood, my head full of worries. Already Mum and Dad were unwell, and I felt thoroughly weighed down. It took a good half an hour before I noticed the birdsong. It was a virtuoso performance, with each refrain being repeated several times, urgently. I could hear another bird answering some distance away. Finally, I managed to actually spot the bird. It was the first song thrush that I had ever noticed, and I was entranced. I stood and listened with rain pouring off my kagoule, all alone in the wood, and for a few moments everything stopped. A few years later a songthrush visited me in the garden, but it is that song in the wood that I remember – I know that I marched out of the woods with my heart lifted.

Song thrush (Turdus philomelos) visiting in the garden

The song thrush was a new bird to me, but the robin is ubiquitous. Yet, I feel as if I have spent the first fifty years of my life paying no attention what so ever to the bird’s song. In Coldfall Wood, in spring, you pass from one songster’s territory to another, without ever being out of earshot of that tumble of melody. Furthermore, robins sing with such gusto and confidence that they will carry on even while you stand underneath ‘their’ tree. Although robins sing all year, they are never so vocal as in spring. I filmed the one below in March, when the year had already turned towards the sun, although we humans might not have noticed.

A sound that I always find exciting is not really a song – it’s the soft ‘tseep’ contact call of a flock of long-tailed tits as they clamber like miniature monkeys through a shrub. If you’ve never heard it (and it’s one of those sounds that you need to ‘tune in’ to ) you can have a listen here. Once I hear it, though, I have to stop and look around. My very best experience of these birds was in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, when I unexpectedly came upon this little group. Newly fledged ‘bumbarrels’! If there is a more adorable bird in the UK I have yet to meet it.

And finally, there is the song that tells me that, for many birds, the hard work of the year is almost over. Every May, there is a morning when I am woken up by the feeding calls of dozens of fledged starlings, all waiting for their poor patient parents to feed them. The first time I heard it, I had to rush to the window to see what on earth was going on, what with all the wheezing and squealing. I love the way that the birds come every year, and I wonder if the local starlings remember that there is always food here. That sense of continuity, of the wheel of the seasons still turning, is reassuring, especially in these tumultuous times.

But I couldn’t leave this subject without mentioning the healing effects of birdsong, even when the birds are not present. Long-time readers of this blog might remember that my mother was hospitalised at Christmas when she came to visit me in London back in 2016. The Whittington Hospital in North London saved her life, and she lived for another two years, during which time she celebrated her sixtieth wedding anniversary to my dad. Here is what I wrote about it at the time.

‘It used to be that hospital wards were full of flowers, the stink of lilies and gently decomposing chrysanthemums rising above the smell of antiseptic and hospital cooking. But now, all plants are banned ‘for hygiene reasons’. Probably the nurses are so overworked that they don’t have time to cope with browning foliage and wilting poinsettias. But I can’t help thinking that something alive and beautiful is as important for healing as drips and antibiotics. Mum’s bunker looked completely sterile. But I had underestimated her.

At Christmas dinner, I had handed out some crackers that I’d bought from a wildlife charity. Each one contained a card that, when opened, released a snippet of bird song. The game was to guess which bird was singing – nightingale, blue tit, wren? Mum had put the cards in her bag. When the very important Consultant and his two trainees came along to see how she was doing, she produced one of the cards and pushed it into the Big Man’s hand.

‘Open that’, she said.

He looked at her askance, and opened the card. The sound of a song thrush in full-throat filled the bare room, flooding the place with the sound of woodland wildness.

The consultant’s face changed. He closed the card and opened it again. He turned to the two trainees.

‘I know you want to go home’, he said to them, ‘But listen to this!’

And he ‘played’ the song again, before closing the card and handing it back to Mum with a bow’

20 thoughts on “The Nimble Musicians of the Air (Isaak Walton)

  1. Anne

    This post resonates fully with me and I am delighted to have read it and listened to some of your songbirds! I agree that contact with nature is healing and I too have found that since starting my own blog I have become more aware of the intrinsic beauty and wonder of the natural world we have tended to take for granted. As I write the Cape Robins are calling outside, as are the Red-eyed Doves and the Cape White-eyes. I frequently listen to the dawn chorus and am delighted now to be able to distinguish the calls as the birds ‘wake’ in turn.

  2. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    My wife has a very keen ear, for most things actually, but most often for birds singing in our garden. She instantly knows if it’s a ‘new’ one and runs out to see if she can spot what it is. She hasn’t quite learnt them all, but she knows quite a few without even looking. Sadly, I don’t have that gift (of good hearing nor recognition) but I do know that it does help you to take a moment out and connect with nature. A beautiful post. 🙂

  3. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    We too love listening to the sounds of the birds on our daily walk. Two of our favourites, which we hear regularly, are the Skylark and the Yellowhammer. The Song Thrush has a lovely repertoire and we are partial to the distinct sound of the Green Woodpecker.

  4. Toffeeapple

    I got new hearing aids last August and I can’t tell you how life-changing they are. I can hear the birds in my little patch which I never could before, it is amazing.

    1. Bug Woman

      So glad, Toffeeapple! I just read a book by Neil Ansell called The Last Wilderness -he is losing his hearing, and writes about the gradual disappearance of birdsong from his life, so it’s lovely that for you it’s coming back xx

  5. Andrea Stephenson

    A moving post Vivienne. I’m not great at identifying bird song – it’s something I think I must learn every year – but I love the Robin’s vibrating song and the starlings always sound so joyful.

  6. Liz Norbury

    The song of a hidden blackbird can stop me in my tracks on my early-morning walks in the dunes, and make me forget, for a few minutes, whatever I’ve been worrying about. Your story about the recorded birdsong delighting both your mum and the hospital consultant reminded me of the People’s Walk for Wildlife in London last September, when we were all asked to download a recording of a choir of birds – blackbird, blackcap, chiff-chaff, nightingale, robin, willow warbler, song thrush, skylark – and then start playing it on repeat as we set off from Hyde Park. There were about 10,000 of us there, bringing the wonders of the natural world into the heart of London.


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