Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 17.3.16

on .

Conversation may be regarded as one of the most important and exclusively human expressions. Yet when I was a child, I imagined that conversation was not limited to human society but was a normal part of everyday life, with a rapport existing between we humans and the animals and birds, with which we share this planet. This conclusion was based upon the first book I ever read which was about a certain Dr Doolittle! Those of us who have pets I guess, still sub-consciously subscribe to such imaginative thoughts.

I expect, that like many readers, I regularly hold conversations with my dogs. Well, not exactly conversations for such communications are inevitably of a one-way nature. Words uttered by me and listened to by two dogs, which I confess, generally obey my commands in the manner of the subservient beasts they are, whilst one cat which typically of all felines does exactly what he wants and only usually responds, vocally or otherwise, to the provision of food. Someone once said that whilst we own dogs; cats in reality, own us! You may not be surprised to hear that vocally, the dogs don’t respond, albeit that the said cat mews almost pathetically when he requires food, which is always. He is named Oliver which may give some indication of his mind set. ‘Miaow’ I definitely know, means ‘more’!

So, we presume that properly constructed speech in sentences is essentially a human faculty. Wrong!  New scientific research now tells us that some birds actually communicate with each other in a way that is as properly constructed - in what we call syntax, which is in other words, properly formed sentences! These revelations are based on research done by Swedish scientists who have been studying Japanese great tits, which are very similar and closely related to the great tits currently pronouncing a very firm welcome to advancing spring in our own landscape. Swedish scientists incidentally are examining the meaning of cat vocalisation too! I repeat that I can tell them that that pathetic mewing means ‘more’!

Birdsong is almost exclusively a spring and summer phenomenon. As winter descends, the avian community, with one or two very notable exceptions, chooses to fall silent but as spring begins to lengthen our days, we find ourselves increasingly listening to the voices of birds. Indeed, it is the birds, perhaps more than any factor which alert us to the progress of the season of re-birth. It is their voices that provide us with those feelings of great expectations and the great tit is one of the leading choristers as that choir begins to find its voice.

The two-tone proclamation of great tits, usually interpreted as ‘tea-cher, tea-cher’, is the one of the most familiar signals of impending spring but the great tit has a surprisingly wide vocal range beyond that familiar proclamation. Those who record such facts in quite amazing detail, tell me for instance, that at least forty different calls can be attributed to this woodland bird which as we all know, has evolved into one of our more familiar garden residents. Indeed,  I have, as a result of this statistic, frequently commented on the likelihood that snatches of bird music we may hear without being able to certainly identify its originators, are very likely to emanate from this extremely familiar and well-studied bird, such is its vocal versatility.

The notion that this bird, or at least its Japanese cousin, constructs sentences is apparently an example of a corporate lifestyle in which birds send each other important ‘survival’ messages. These communications betray for instance, a common interest in issuing warnings that predators are in the vicinity. Further research on the part of those Swedish academics suggests that other animals issue similar warnings and can go a step further by issuing varying vocal signals to warn of the presence of different predators, one series of sounds for instance for a threatening snake and another for an equally threatening raptor.

Our own judgement regarding the advance of spring is probably as much reliant upon the volume of birdsong as it is dependent upon the appearance of new green shoots and catkins for instance. And, during the past few days, one sound in particular has registered in my mind, the certainty of spring’s arrival. There are many signs to be recognised; the first sightings in these inland areas of lapwing, oyster catchers and curlew provide visual evidence of the changes being manifested and the great tit’s chanting is an easily recognised audio signal. But it is surely the cheery incantation of one of our most familiar garden birds, the chaffinch, that is the final certain confirmation of winter’s retreat.

The cock chaffinch’s cheery little ditty, a rapid succession of jumbled up notes which are signed off with an assertive flourish at its conclusion, was once likened to me by a cricketing friend, to the stuttering run-up of a bowler who has somehow lost his normal stride in a cricket match but finally manages to deliver the ball effectively in the end! Yet, travel around the country and you will find many subtle variations on a theme. Cock chaffinches you see, begin to learn the song that is their vocal hallmark very soon after they have fledged by listening to others (cock chaffinches maintain song right through the summer), so by listening to their immediate neighbours, they therefore learn the local dialect.  Move just a few miles away and you may find yourself listening to a slightly different chaffinch song. As far as I remember, that was something of which the said Dr Doolittle had little knowledge!

As most avid feeders of garden birds will know, chaffinches are, during the winter months, extremely gregarious. Yet appearances can be deceptive. Male and female chaffinches feed here in roughly equal numbers and with equal enthusiasm. But during those winter months, although they may come together to exploit feeding opportunities, they very definitely live in separate communities – all the males travelling together in bachelor flocks and the females likewise, in spinster groups.

Now however, as spring takes hold, the individuality of the males especially, comes to the surface and birds, which during the bleaker months of winter sought solace and indeed survival in the security of the flock, are beginning to find their own specific stations in life as they assert a more singular lifestyle. And nothing demonstrates that change in lifestyle better than the chuntering little bursts of song which each day are increasing in regularity and which are of course, inviting response from other equally assertive cock birds.

The merles are in much the same way issuing their melodic pronouncements of advancing spring. Their music resonates perhaps more than that of any other songster, yet many of our more renowned poets have revered more ardently the phrased and repetitive offerings of the mavis, which in recent days incidentally hereabouts, has ardently joined the chorus. How does that old, much adulterated verse go? ‘The spring is sprung, the grass is ris; I wonder where the birdies is!’ The chaffinches will tell you with increasing exuberance!  

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods