In the English bard's Twelfth Night he writes, "If music be the food of love, play on ..." Thus I conclude that love is indeed in the air for the avian chorus, despite the notoriously capricious nature of the weather as March makes its entrance, is reflecting universally, a swelling of romantic emotions. The sound of music, now accompanied by the plaintiff bleating of newly born lambs, is increasing in volume by the day, chief songster among them here, the mavis, which is literally giving voice from dawn to dusk ... any beyond! But beware; March when it came was more lion than lamb-like!
"That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, lest you should think he never could recapture the first fine careless rapture .. " is another verse, also from the pen of an English poet, in this case, Robert Browning. Both exhibited an admiration for the vocal versatility of the song thrush - our bard's oft quoted mavis. However, in recent years, this once widespread bird seems to have become noticeably scarcer and in some parts of these islands, virtually absent. It is therefore with some delight that I can report that last year there was an equally noticeable resurgence in this airt at least. Thus, that trade-mark song, the phrases in my experience at least repeated not twice, as Browning had it but thrice and sometimes four times, was very much to the fore!
There are plenty of thrushes around just now with the remaining rampaging 'Viking' fieldfares and redwings still augmenting populations of the more sedentary but more musically vocal, native son and mistle thrushes. Indeed, the latter is well known for its assertive vocalisation during stormy weather, enjoying as it does, the soubriquet of 'storm cock', due to its habit of defiantly singing when the wind blows and the rain lashes. In similar fashion to those Scandinavian winter invaders, mistle thrushes always seem to exert further defiance by breasting the fiercest of winds in vigorous fight just as trawlers might breast the restless waves, as they literally hurtle into the teeth of gales.
The music of the larger mistle thrush lacks the repetitive rhythm of its smaller song-thrush cousin but is appropriately assertive and cheerfully melodic, if sometimes descending into a coarser, less musical rattle. And, in line with its challenging singing, the mistle thrush is also big and bold enough to show naked aggression towards potential predators, usually to pretty good effect. They share with fieldfares a flash of white under the wings which seems to serve as a warning to other birds. Indeed, these assertive thrushes also defend with determination good berry-bearing shrubs and trees, which they claim and defend as their own exclusive feeding territory.
My resident song thrush is now really belting out the music, from first light until well beyond sunset, which seems also to act as inspiration to the growing quarrel of house sparrows which also chatter testily away until it is almost completely dark. Either these are particularly badly behaved sparrows or perhaps and more likely, they too have been completely overtaken by the rise of their emotional temperatures as spring advances and days lengthen.
All this comes as I spot my first frog-spawn of the year, which offers further confirmation of spring's advance. So it comes as no surprise that some members of my local rook community, as is the well-documented tradition, have failed to wait until St David's Day - March 1st and jumped the gun to begin their annual spring clean. Some were already gathering at the rookery in mid-February and are now beginning to busily add sticks to those nests that have withstood the winter's storms, or in the cases of those that have been wrecked, beginning to lay new foundations.
But I must say that if the 'music' the rooks are making does not somehow seem to match that of my tuneful song thrush, it must nevertheless be the 'food of love' as far as these decidedly amorous rooks are concerned. Our ears are perhaps tuned to admire what we interpret as sweet music without considering that rooks for instance may hear sweet music in the raucous calling of their colleagues. It may not seem musical to us but presumably to courting rooks it is indeed, as yet another English poet John Keats wrote, "Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too."
Like the chattering, quarrelsome sparrows, rooks also believe firmly in corporate life, feeding, moving and nesting together as communities. And if sparrows have always lived cheek by jowl with human communities, rooks have to all intents and purposes, remained that little bit more aloof ... except that nowadays they are increasingly exploiting the profligacy of the modern day supermarket shopper, by loitering in the car parks of these mega-stores. Along with screaming gulls, they exploit our carelessness relentlessly and eagerly.
But rooks are among the intelligentsia of the avian world, adept at for instance, in manufacturing tools in order to extract difficult to obtain morsels of food and able to use other items, such as stones in order to trigger apparatus which again allows them to obtain food. Oddly enough, there is a suggestion that captive rooks are more adept in this respect compared with wild birds, which suggests they have an impressive capacity to learn.
Not that rook life, once rookeries become more and more animated as spring advance, is necessarily all sweetness and light. Whilst rooks actually live in a highly structured society with senior members establishing themselves as the 'leaders', thus lording it over less important members of the group. They enjoy first choice of the best feeding, while the 'subsidiary' birds have to settle for less rich pickings. Yet, despite the presence of this hierarchy, there is no moral compass. In a rookery theft is commonplace and so too is infidelity, even if they mostly pair for life!
And whilst much has been written about rook courts or parliaments - events I have personally witnessed - the notion that such 'criminals' are thereafter punished may be fantasy. Indeed, it may be nearer to the truth to say that birds 'up before the beaks' are not necessarily felons but much more likely diseased birds and as such, considered 'by the court' to represent a danger to the rest of the colony. The sentence passed I'm afraid is either death or exile and the senior rooks are the executioners or the deporting agents.
Thus, the signs of early nuptials and the sound of love songs is surely a response to the hitherto benign nature of this winter, rather than a precocious urge to get out of the blocks indecently early. Winter is showing that it still has a sting in its tail but lengthening days tell us that March is the first proper month of spring whether coming in as a lion or a lamb. The rising volume of music, whether sweet or not, tells its own story.