Friday, 10 February 2006

Winter songsters

There have been a few warmer days of late, premature hints of a spring that is still a number of weeks away. Such teasing glimpses make February burdensome – winter can’t still be upon us. I want to get out and watch nature springing into life. I am not the only one eager to get going, for outside in the early morning darkness a song thrush is singing; its strident notes striking out above the plaintive winter song of a robin. The robin is one of the few birds to defend a territory year round and this is why its wistful tunes can be heard throughout the winter months. But the song thrush is a less regular songster at this time of the year and its performance is an optimistic sign that winter will soon be over.

The impression ones gets when listening to a song thrush is of a singer that enjoys the act of performance, something that is reflected in the bold clarity of the delivered phrases and the deceptive simplicity of structure. Each song thrush will have a repertoire of some 100 or so different phrases and appears to select from these almost at random, putting several together and often repeating a sequence a number of times over. This fondness for a rhythmic repetition of repeated phrases may be one of the reasons why the song thrush features so prominently in poetry. One of the best examples of this comes in Tennyson’s ‘The Throstle’ but others, including Thomas Hardy, Robert Browning and Edward Thomas, all draw on this English songster. Edward Thomas, undoubtedly the least well-known of these poets, featured our various thrushes in 15 or so of his 142 poems and his use of colloquial speech rhythms is well-suited to the repetitive nature of the song.

The presence of repeated phrases is characteristic of the song thrush and very useful for separating this species from another late winter songster, the mistle thrush. The latter species has a song that is more reminiscent of a blackbird, though harsher in tone with a faster tempo. This is delivered from the upper branches of a tree and is loud and far-carrying. Many authors have commented upon the feeling of sadness that derives from the mistle thrush song. Perhaps this is added to by its habit of singing on bleak, overcast days or during periods of wind and rain, a behaviour that has earned it the local name of ‘stormcock’. Although I admire the mistle thrush for singing, indifferent to the harsh backdrop of a late winter storm, I prefer the optimism offered by the song thrush: “Spring is coming, spring is coming, spring is coming”.

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