Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Brussels - Blackbird

As birders there are probably two questions we are asked more than any others; why and which? Why do we do it, and which is our favourite bird?

I used to hate these questions. The first seemed unanswerable in any meaningful way, and the second facile. I have since developed an answer of kinds to the “why” question, which I’ll elucidate some other time. But for a long time I really thought that there was no answer to the “which” question. It was like being asked what my favourite drink is – the answer, of course, being that it depends. Is the weather hot or cold? Have I been outside all day, or inside reading? Is there food? What kind? Where am I in the world? All these things matter. The answer is contextual.

But then I went to Australia. This was years ago, back in the late 1990s, I’d met a girl, of course. She’d been working with horses in the village next to where I was living at the time in the Cotswolds, and we’d met in the pub. A romance blossomed, but then she had to head back to Australia. Or so I told myself. In fact, she didn’t have to, she chose to, and looking back with the benefit of hindsight I should perhaps have picked up on the important signal evident in that distinction. Still, I was young, etc, etc…

Anyway, for a couple of short visits I ended up in New South Wales, putting a brave face on a decaying relationship, as you do - and birding, as you also do. Although I’d travelled outside Europe before, I’d really only dipped my toes; some time East of the Urals in arctic Siberia, a few weeks in Lebanon, a couple of weeks in Turkey. Only one of these places was outside the Western Palearctic, and then only just, so I was simply not prepared for the shock of a totally new avifauna. With the exception of Feral Pigeons (Columba livia var. dom.), nothing was familiar. It was overwhelming. So much was new that I now have trouble remembering many of the birds I saw. I was in a visual world of Parrots and Honeycreepers and an aural world which, with the exception of a couple of Lyrebirds (Menura novaehollandiaeheard in the Bush one day, seemed to consist of nothing but squawks and screams. They well reflected my mood.

By hook and by crook, and with happy and less happy detours, we came to the town of Berrima. A place built to be big, but which has stayed charmingly small and has been left with a legacy of grand neoclassical buildings far beyond its actual size. It was a low day, I recall, and the sight of my first King Parrots (Alisterus scapularisdid little for my mood.  Nicole was on the phone when out of the evening cacophony emerged a beautiful song. A Blackbird (Turdus merula). I recognised it at once, but realised that I’d never really heard it until that moment, and it went straight to my heart.

Blackbirds get a bad press or, more often, no press at all. They’re tremendously common over much of their range, which has the effect of blinding people to just how stunning the jet black plumage and tangerine-orange bill of a male in top condition really are. But it’s the song that gets you. Unusually, my guru Simon Barnes, despite some polite platitudes, effectively dismisses the Blackbird’s song as muzak in his book Birdwatching with your Eyes Closed. After my epiphany in Berrima, I would naturally reject that, but in fact it precisely proves his point. I had never really listened to Blackbirds before because they’re always there in the background, and they don’t stick out like a Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) or a Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus).  

But just because Mozart is sometimes played in shopping malls, doesn’t mean it’s shopping mall music. For the alternative view it's worth hearing what Lord Grey of Falloden had to say. He, as plain old Sir Edward Grey, was British Foreign Secretary in the run-up to and during the first half of the First World War. He was also a birder and is therefore the ur-diplomat birdwatcher and another guru of mine, for obvious reasons. In the 1930s he wrote what was probably the first blockbuster bestseller about birding – The Charm of Birds, a precursor to Barnes’ How to be a Bad Birdwatcher – and here is what Grey has to say about the Blackbird and its song:

"It is not possible to explain why the blackbird's notes excel and why they mean so much to me. To me there is something in it that I can best describe as intimacy. The songs of other birds please or delight us, but that of the blackbird seems to make a direct appeal to us and stirs some inward emotion"

I think he has it. The very thing that makes the Blackbird’s song so wonderful is its homeliness and companionable quality. It is not histrionic – it is not the grand, throw-everything-to-the-wind love affair song; it’s the song of stability, of a grounded affection. Which is probably why I reacted so strongly to it in Berrima. Listen for yourself at the link below.

As Simon Barnes correctly points out, our reaction to the song says nothing about its true meaning – a cry for sex to females and a threat of violence to rival males. No, this is all about us, and our sense, and how the song has weaved itself into our lives. My own feeling is that I’ve grown into Grey’s view, that it’s a factor of age. As a boy I used to walk into the woods in Blean near Canterbury, where I grew up, to listen to the Nightingales, but I wouldn’t have walked a step for a Blackbird then, and I wouldn't have needed to. They were, and are, pretty much everywhere. I’d still walk for the Nightingales, but I’d do it for a Blackbird now too. 

No Blackbirds are singing now. Winter is coming on apace. But Blackbirds come to our tiny garden in Brussels every day, and if last winter is any guide in a couple of months’ time a male will take up shelter in the laurels at the back of the garden and start, sotto voce, limbering up for the Spring, singing his subsong as if to a private audience – Lieder, rather than opera.

But come the Spring, here in Brussels, the Blackbirds will take up voice and sing through the night. It’s not something I’ve come across anywhere else, but whether as an adaptation to street lighting, or to take advantage of the silence of the depths of night, or both, I’ve heard them sing out at two o’clock in the morning, an hour when nothing else good is happening. And each time I hear it I cheer for this background bird, this companionable charmer, whose song has perhaps been the most consistent soundtrack of my life. And now whenever anyone asks me which is my favourite bird, I have an answer.


The object of my affections. A fine, male Blackbird.
Photo courtesy of

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