Review published on June 4, 2017.
Can you imagine a world without birdsong? The very thought makes me shudder, but in the noise created by modern city life, the warbling is relegated to a footnote in the modern din. Whilst you will hear more birdsong in the countryside, the wholesale devastation of birds and invertebrates by modern industrial farming mean that you do not hear it as often as you once would have.
It is a tragedy of the modern age.
Thankfully you can still hear birdsong and at its best it is a wonderful natural musical background to our world. It has had a profound effect on artists and musicians and it has influenced elements of our culture and sciences for hundreds of years. For Smyth though, it was a small part of his world, like an electronic gadget, but it was something that he really didn’t understand or have any concept of. He was not alone, lots of people have tried to fathom out the whys and wherefores of birdsong and have never really got to the bottom of it. Some of the songs are territorial, some are to attract mates and other songs just seem to be for the hell of it. What we hear is not what the birds hear
Realising how little he knows, Smyth sets out on a journey to discover how much, or little, everyone knows about this phenomena. On this he will discover the syrinx that allows them to sing two notes at once, the live recording of cellist, Beatrice Harrison, with a nightingale in a Surrey garden, how poets respond to the notes they are hearing and how birdsong made the soldiers on the battlefields of World War 1 feel homesick. It is quite a journey too; he meets birders, linguists, twitchers, data analysts and musicians. All of these add to his understanding of what happens, but the only way to gain the emotional response is to head into the nearest wood with an expert who can tell his warbler from his chiffchaff.
I finished reading this in the garden over the weekend with birdsong all around. Sadly, mostly it was the tuneless chirps from the sparrows, but in amongst that was songs from a bird that I didn’t recognise. The effortless writing in here makes for easy reading and he keeps your interest in the subject all the way through by mixing together history, science and personal anecdotes. All of this adds up to a book on birdsong that is well worth reading, and it has a stunning cover too. Like all good non-fiction books it answers lots of your questions, and hopefully it will inspire people to get outside to hear the music of the birds.
Paul Cheney 3/3
A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing by Richard Smyth
Elliott & Thompson 9781783963140 hbk Apr 2017
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