The Charm of Birds Chapter One Part Two

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Adapted by Alison Pryce

Chapter One Part One    Part Two     Part Three    Part Four    Part Five    Part Six    Part Seven

In January the mornings begin to lengthen.

The evenings begin to do so about the middle of December, but the mornings get darker till the end of the year. It is not till January that the sun rises earlier, as well as sets later, every day. It is in the middle of this month that the greatest average cold of winter is reached and passed. Thus January may be said to be the month from which we may date the beginning both of longer and of warmer days; though the increase of warmth is so hesitating and slow for several weeks, that it may be considered technically rather than practically correct to notice it.

January, then, shall be described first, but the description will apply only to an average winter: exceptionally severe or exceptionally mild weather produces variations in bird life which must be allowed for.

The place in mind will be Fallodon, in the north-east part of Northumberland, on stiff clay soil, at no great altitude above the sea,-level, from which it is separated by some two miles of exposed land, now mostly grass. A high ridge of moor lies three miles to the west. Near the house are sheltering woods, and in the grounds are two ponds and plenty of shrubs: in short, a place attractive to buds, but with no unusual characteristics. What is heard of bird song here may be heard in any suitable place in the North of England. In an average January there will be some frost, and for a week, perhaps, a few inches of snow; but the ponds will be clear of ice for half the month, and there will be several days on which the thermometer in the shade will reach something between 40 and 50 degrees. It is on these days that the best singing will be heard.

First let the robin be noted. He has been singing since August, whenever the weather was not unduly discouraging, and he will go on singing till July. W. H. Hudson told me that the female as well as the male robin sings: this seemed probable, for in autumn each robin is alone in its territory. No robin will then tolerate a companion of its own or even of the other sex. Yet in each territory there seems to be song. The observations of Mr. Burkitt with ringed birds, of which the sex had been ascertained and could be identified, has proved that female robins do sometimes sing like the males. I have, however, never heard the female sing after the birds have paired for the breeding season: of the pairs that I have had under observation only one bird has sung, and I conclude that this has been the male. Certainly only one bird has sung at a time and one has been silent, when they were together. If anyone suggests that it is sometimes the male and sometimes the female that sings, I can only say that I think this is unlikely, but I must admit that robins are capable of anything.

Is there a difference between the quality of robin song in autumn and in spring? I think there is. In autumn the song has something thin and acid in its tone. "The bitter note of the robin," was the comment of a friend, as we passed close to a bird singing in October. In spring the song seems more vigorous: it is worth while to stand close to a good robin and listen attentively: some notes of fine quality will be heard. In April, when thoughts are turned towards summer warblers, I have even heard one or two notes in a robin's song that prompt the exclamation" blackcap!" In estimating the difference between spring and autumn songs allowance must be made for the human mood and expectation of the mind. In autumn, when

" The warm sun is failing,
The bleak wind is wailing,"

"The chill rain is falling,
The nipped worm is crawling,"

and the sun is getting lower and the days shorter, our own minds are attuned to a minor key, and we find it in the robin's song. On a warm April day, when sap is rising and we are full of anticipation, with ears a-tiptoe for the mst note of a blackcap, we judge the robin's song differently. " We used," said a Conservative who was cutting my hair soon after the war, "we used to think Mr. Lloyd George everything that was bad. Now we admire him. Is it he or is it we that have changed?" And so I ask, listening to a robin in spring and comparing the impression remembered of the autumn, "Is it the song or is it I that have changed? "

Be this as it may, the robin's song is worth attention: he sings more than any of our birds; he may be heard in every month in the year, even in July and August, if we listen for him: and, though he may not open the Great Chorus at Dawn in May, he is the last to cease in the evening, outstaying even the thrush.

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