What happens when you play music to birds?
Recently my publisher, who is a gifted gardener well-known for his roses, sent me a book by Clare Leighton, about her garden. It is called Four Hedges (Little Toller Books, Dorset 2010).
I had never heard of the writer, and turned to the blurb, which described her as one of the finest engravers of the twentieth century. She settled in the countryside in the1930s with her longtime partner, the political journalist Henry Noel Brailsford. They lived in the Chiltern Hills in southeast England and here the two of them made a garden.
The book is illustrated with striking engravings of birds, flowers, snails, hedgehogs, thistles, foxgloves, or chestnuts, as well as people working in the garden.
The illustrations have an antique precision about them, and there is a fluent perfection to their lines and composition. As Clare Leighton documents her garden, she observes and describes her land as a lover might: with eagerness, attention and joy, noticing its drawbacks -- the chalky soil, the stubborn weeds -- with guilt, hurriedly turning away from them. I’ve begun to look at my own small patch of green, and the dark soil on it, with different eyes.
In my garden I have a few birdfeeders. Two are terracotta, and I made them myself to a design that would prevent the seed getting soaked if it rains. They are shaped whimsically, like birds, and it’s fun to see sparrows pop in and out of the terracotta belly of the feeder. The other feeders are chipped old teapots hung up by their handles. The spouts become drains if the teapot does fill with rainwater. While the advantage is that the water drains out, the disadvantage is that some of the birdseed leaves with the water. But that doesn’t matter too much. Some birds like to feed perched on the feeders; others will only graze from the ground, eating what the perched ones drop.
I have been observing the birds that come to feed for several years. We have a pair of greenbacked woodpeckers who are regulars. They are also very chatty rufous sibias and laughing thrushes, a very shy rock thrush, white-eyes who come for the apple halves, greywinged blackbirds, the fat blue-black whistling thrush, spotted doves, cinnamon sparrows, cheeky, sweet flocks of tits, the inevitable pigeons. My four dogs chase away the pigeons, but leave the rest alone. (This is the only part of their training we've achieved some moderate success with.)
One passage in Four Hedges has been intriguing me ever since I read it. It is about animals and birds and the sounds they can hear – they hear what human ears cannot. The passage ends with the observation that some birds seem to prefer Mozart’s Oboe Quartet over all else:
“[The darkness in the garden] is all so formless that I cannot see the bats that shake in the air around me, but can only tell that they are there by the vibration as they pass near me, or by their tiny high pitched cry. Noel grows exasperated, for he cannot hear the cry of the bats, and likes to pretend I am imagining it. He says the pitch is known to be too high for some ears, and that I ought to think myself very lucky that I am able to hear it. I wonder how many sounds there are that none of us can hear, and whether we get the full song of birds. Noel says that cats only hear the high notes. He has whistled to them the same tune in various octaves; to the lower ones they will remain indifferent, but to the higher ones they will fling themselves onto their backs and roll with delight. We have also noticed that the tits answer with twittering only to the lighter higher pitched records on our gramophone. After much experimenting we have found that have an especial favourite in Mozart’s Oboe Quartet. Perhaps they catch a likeness in the sound of the oboe to their own notes, for they seem to try almost to drown it with their song.”
This morning I decided to test it out and stood near the feeders, playing the Oboe Quartet on my phone. Not a minute had passed after I pressed play that a whole flock of laughing thrushes, two sibias, and countless tits and sparrows descended on the feeders. They did not sing as Clare’s birds did, but certainly talked to each other a great deal and gorged themselves on the grain and peanuts and apples. (There is a short video at the end of this post.)
What struck me as particularly unusual was that they appeared to notice me even less than they normally do. Usually they hop a short distance away if I come too close. With the music on, they did not bother with me a mere foot or so away, as they fed. I want to think the notes of the oboe made them regard me as a bird.
I plan to try out Indian classical music next. How will they respond to sounds of the sitar, I wonder, or the bamboo flute? My mother once gifted me a clay whistle, shaped like a bird, that she had found somewhere. (Whenever she sees interesting ceramic things, she buys them for me. That is what mothers are for.) I’m going to try the notes on the whistle as well, and perhaps try making a few clay whistles myself.
As expected, I’m not getting much real work done – but then these are the first few sunny days in a bitter January.
A PS: A birdwatcher friend, Ivan Hutnik, who read this post sent this fascinating passage about Mozart and his starling