Country diary: blackbird song is all the better for its thievery

Claxton, Norfolk: The song thrush is a much more frequent borrower of other birds’ sounds but, like all great artists, blackbirds will steal on occasions

It has been a surprise to be woken several mornings recently by blackbird song, because normally in our parish I seldom hear the full performance before March. I call this bird’s output “song” but, in truth, it is quite like subsong, which is a late-autumn version of a bird’s true vocalisations, usually performed by young males as they practise and explore their species’ sound structures and repertoire. It strikes you as monochrome and introverted hedge-bottom stuff, as if the bird were singing mainly for itself.

Yet this midwinter blackbird is more than that. It has some of the outline of true song, and several of the typical phrases, which, from a bird in full voice, have the richness and contours of a hawthorn swollen with blossom; but this bird’s motifs are smaller, more muted, as if they have been trimmed and blanched by cold air.

They also contain a trace of mimicry. Several times there was a distinct hint of curlew song. I love these acts of song thievery. Among the family, the song thrush is a much more frequent borrower of other birds’ sounds but, like all great artists, blackbirds will steal on occasions.

There was a wonderful story from Colchester where a family matriarch used a four-note whistle to summon her children. One of the latter described how in 1949 a local blackbird, whose favourite songpost was near his mother’s pantry window, nicked the riff and perfected it and then gave it to other local blackbirds. Never more than five or six but never fewer than two of these golden-mouthed songsters deployed the whistle and kept it going until it finally died away 13 years later.

Alas, my blackbird usually gives up just after dawn, before the light is pencil-lead grey. I go to the window and see why. Daffodils are spearing all across the garden but the hedge is bare. There are two yellow crocuses flowering on the bank, but as yet there are no daisies spreading like a small galaxy through the lawn. There may be robin song from our hollies, but for now the dawn chorus is elsewhere.


Mark Cocker

The GuardianTramp

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