A celebration day for birdsong

Richard Smyth offers a word of warning as we head down a narrow path to one of his regular West Yorkshire birdwatching haunts.

“In Spring, I can’t keep away from here; there’s so much going on,” he says. “But it isn’t exactly everyone’s idea of a rural idyll.”

Well, no. Denso Marston Nature Reserve is off a busy main road at Baildon, a few miles north of Bradford. It’s sandwiched between the factory whose name it has adopted and the River Aire, its banks still littered with odds and ends of debris left by the Christmas 2015 floods.

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For all their urban setting, though, the shady glades of this rather secretive seven acre reserve are such a haven for birds that within ten minutes we’ve seen or heard a good dozen different species. There can’t be many better places to come on Sunday May 7 for Dawn Chorus Day, the annual celebration of what the organisers call “Nature’s daily miracle”.

As we talk, there’s a ceaseless backdrop of birdsong. In A Sweet, Wild Note, his enterprising new book on the subject, he describes it as sometimes being “a battle cry, a terrace chant, a come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you’re-hard-enough”. Don’t tangle with a blue tit.

We see or hear wrens, jays, a kingfisher (an unmistakable flash of iridescent blue), great tits and a woodpecker. To be accurate, Smyth sees the woodpecker. I’m not quick enough.

“Sometimes the bigger reserves can be full of people trudging from one place to another, all seeing the same things,” he says, binoculars slung round neck.

“For some it’s a very social experience. Personally I’m a bit of a loner. Hear that chu-chu-chu sound? That’s a chiffchaff.”

Smyth, who lives in nearby Saltaire, is a widely published wildlife writer. He’s part of the regular team on the Guardian’s Country Diary and also a critic, novelist and crossword

He’s been a Mastermind finalist and, more recently, a question-setter for the programme. His previous books have included the memorably titled Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper. “I’m a lifelong user of toilet paper, but not a lifelong enthusiast for it,” he says. A line reassuring on two counts.

His (almost) lifelong enthusiasm is for the birdwatching that brings
him to Denso Marston – ideally at
seven in the morning, when birdsong can be at its most choral. That’s birdwatching, note. Not twitching, which he describes in the book as “an elevated state of being that is something between an alternative lifestyle choice and an untreated neurosis”.

A Sweet, Wild Note (the title is taken from the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White’s description of the blackcap’s song) is subtitled What we hear when the birds sing. It’s an engaging read, taking a long view of birdsong’s appeal and importance. This “soundtrack of our world”, as it’s been called, is so prevalent and puzzling that, Smyth says, “for centuries there was a view that God put birds there to sing for us.”

He musters a wide range of facts and opinions about birdsong’s cultural context, its influence on literature and music, and the complex relationship people have with it. And he comes at it with refreshing detachment.

“I’ve always been a bit of a birdsong sceptic,” he says. “I’ve never really got what poets are on about. The first time I heard a nightingale, I was surprised. I expected something a bit more melodic and it baffled me. I don’t hear music in birdsong. It can be a mad, whistling, stuttering babble; a racket... but a lovely racket. A wonderful sound but it’s not music.”

What is it then? “Sometimes it’s a challenge to other birds. Territory is the main driver. A blackbird singing morning and evening is shouting ‘Get off my land’ to other blackbirds....Hear that robin over there?”

The elegantly designed book lists a dozen other possible explanations for birdsong, including attracting a mate, warning of predators and keeping in touch with offspring.“But we can never really know what it’s about,” says Smyth. “We can’t hear birdsong as a bird hears it. There’s a gap between the noises the birds are making and the songs we’re hearing.”

A cuckoo’s call, for instance, may have “a dreamy quality to us”, moving our souls in some indefinable way, but it may spell danger to other birds – an intimation that they may soon find a cuckoo’s egg in their nests, waiting to be fostered.

The book offers all sorts of
surprises. Birds have local dialects, for instance. “Great tits in North London say ‘peter peter’ and in the rest of London they say ‘teacher teacher’. 
And birds sing louder because of traffic, or at a higher pitch to take them out of traffic’s range. They sometimes start singing earlier to miss the rush hour.”

Alarmingly, he says, “we’re losing birdsong because we’re losing birds.” Between 1995 and 2013, the UK skylark population fell by 24 per cent. Greenfinches were down by 32 per cent and nightingales by 37 per cent. Marsh tits dropped 29 per cent; willow tits, their fellow woodlanders, by an astonishing 81 per cent – which, as he says, is “an awful lot of ‘pee-chays, tsi-tsis, chip-chips and tiu tius stripped out of our broadleaf woodland”.

Smyth’s enthusiasm for birds started when he read his grandfather’s bird books. Growing up in Horbury near Wakefield, he moved on to field guides and magazines sent out by the Young Ornithologists’ Club.

“I’ve always been a bookish birder,” he says. When he was younger, he was the sort of amateur naturalist who, as the eccentric 19th century Yorkshire conservationist Charles Waterton put it, “spent more time in books than in bogs”.

After graduating from the University of York in 2000, he worked for a law publisher for six years before taking voluntary redundancy and going freelance as a writer. His first commission was for a piece on birdwatching and he chose British birds as his special subject on Mastermind in 2008. He got through the first round and, not expecting to get through the second, chose Russian novels, 1830 to 1890, as his subject for the final.

“I did get through, though,” he says. “So I suddenly had to read a lot of Dostoyevsky very quickly. And I’d never read War and Peace.” He came third out of six in the final.

“You think you might make a
ool of yourself, but when you’re
in the chair you can’t be nervous. You’ve got to focus. It’s so intense. You’re doing nothing but look at John Humphrys and listening to what he says.”

A bit like watching birds and listening to their song. There’s a rustle in the bushes. Is it a dunnock? A wren? No. It’s a cocker spaniel, taking its owner out for a walk.

A Sweet, Wild Note , published by Elliott & Thompson, is out now priced £14.99.