The Song of Birds
B IRDS sing when they are happy, and cry out when they are frightened, just as children do. Only they have songs and cries of their own. You can always tell when the little song-birds are happy, for each one trills out his joyous notes as he sits on a branch of a tree, or the top of a hedge.
In the early morning of the spring, you will hear singing in the garden almost before it is light. First there is a little chirping and twittering, as if the birds were saying "good-morning" and preparing their throats. Then, as the sun rises, there comes a burst of song.
Robins, Thrushes, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, and Wrens whistle away merrily, and many other little birds join in. While they are all singing together, it is not easy to tell one song from another, though the Thrush sings loudest and clearest of all.
Then they fly away to their breakfast and, as the day goes on, you hear one or two at a time. So you can listen to the notes of each song, and if you go near very quietly, you can see the throat of the bird swelling and quivering as he works the little voice-chords inside, which make the notes.
It is not easy to write down what a bird sings, for it is like whistling—there are no words in it. But people often try to imitate their songs in words. Listen to the Thrush. You can fancy he says "cherry-tree, cherry-tree, cherry-tree" three times. Then, after some other notes, he sings "hurry-up, hurry-up," and "go-it, go-it." For the thrush has a great many notes.
The pretty Yellowhammer, with its bright yellow head, sings "a little bit of bread, and no che-e-s-e." The Chiff-chaff calls "chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff" quite distinctly. Any child can imitate the cuckoo, or the coo-oo-oo of the wood-pigeon.
As the days grow hotter, the birds sing less. They sit on the branches of the trees, or on the hedges under the shade of the leaves, or hop about in the wood.
Then when the evening comes, and long shadows creep over the grass, each bird looks out for his supper. When he is satisfied he sings his evening song of content, before he goes to sleep.
What a concert it is! Finches, tomtits, sparrows, wrens, robins, and chaffinches all singing at once. And above them all, come the song of the thrushes and blackbirds, the cooing of the wood-pigeon and the caw-caw of the rooks as they fly home from the fields. As the thrushes were the first to begin in the morning, except the lark, so they are the last to leave off at night, and often one thrush will go on long after all the others are quiet.
Then at last all seem to have settled down for the night. But no! If you live in Kent, or any part of the south or east of England, you may hear in May or June a sweet sound, like a flute, coming softly from many parts of the wood. This comes from the Nightingales, who, in the warm summer, will sing nearly all night.
They sing in the day as well, but their note is so soft that often you cannot hear it when more noisy birds are singing. In the still night you can hear the sweet song rising up six notes and then bubbling like a flute played in water. When you have once heard a nightingale sing you will never forget it. In Yorkshire or Devonshire you will not hear him, for he does not go so far to the North or to the West.
Birds sing most in the spring, for then they are making their nests, and the father bird sings to the mother while she is building, and when she is sitting on the eggs. You may often find out where a Robin's nest is hidden by seeing the cock-robin sitting on a branch singing to his mate. Most people too, have seen the Wood-pigeon puffing out his throat and cooing and bowing to the mother bird on her nest. For pigeons make love all the year round.
When the mother bird is sitting, the father bird sings for joy, and when the young birds are hatched he teaches them his song. Song-birds have very delicate throats. They have muscles, which quiver like the strings of a violin, and the young birds have to learn to work these muscles.
It is curious to hear a young Blackbird or Thrush beginning to try a tune. First he sounds one note, then two or three. They are not always in tune, but he tries again and again. So little by little he learns his father's song.
Listen to the song of birds—robins, thrushes, blackbirds, larks, nightingales, bullfinches and others, and try to imitate them by whistling.