Remember Hitchcock’s film, The Birds? Watch it and you’ll never hear a gull’s caw without picturing that scene – you know the one: where actress Tippi Hedren runs along with a seagull attached to her head? It terrified me even more than Psycho did. Perhaps a lunatic with a knife can do more damage than a bird and beak, but Hitchcock was right to home in on the gull. Seagulls are greedy and slightly menacing, as swans are, although the Master of Terror took things a step further by actually making the feathered friends into real antagonists. It seemed almost unthinkable at the time, but was it really? Hitchcock only did what came naturally; he used birdsong as a way of manipulating emotion because birdsong does just that. As author Richard Smyth explains in his book, A Sweet, Wild Note, birdsong – or rather the absence of it, spells one thing clearer than anything else to the human ear: menace.
Seagulls aren’t the only menacing birds; crows have been harbingers of doom for centuries; the mere sight of one was once enough to cast a curse and our own Tower of London relies on their presence as a kind of talismanic force (on the basis perhaps that anything nasty enough to scare off a crow has to be pretty nasty, and nastier still than Henry VIII with an axe). Crows, like other birds, have their place in our myths as well as in our landscapes. “Birdsong,” says Smyth, “comes with baggage”. As musicians, birds “won’t stick to scales, won’t sing on cue, can’t read music and are liable to crap all over the concert hall”, but their song is more than the sum of its notes. It is “tied in tightly with a lot of other things – ideas of place, of nature”. Birdsong can transport you to a place and time like nothing else. Poets, and particularly, Smyth explains, the Romantics, knew this; they conjured birdsong in lines as hard to forget as the sweet, wild notes that inspired them. Keats thrust aside all morbid thoughts when stirred by the notes of the nightingale.
How could death cast its shadow, while “thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad/In such an ecstasy”? Neither the nightingale nor the skylark featured in The Birds, nor could they have. The nightingale is beauty; the skylark, hope. This book makes the point – sometimes humorously, sometimes lyrically – that birdsong is in some mysterious way a reflection of our own human hopes and fears, which is why it is so important to us. How important? Imagine, says Smyth, a world without it. Enter Hitchcock’s nightmare: no birdsong means that something is wrong, that there is something to fear. Or it could just mean that there are no birds – a prospect which could yet become a reality if we continue to urbanise the environment as though our lives (and not the birds’) depended on it.
We often speak about rising sea levels and rising smog but we don’t talk much about declining birdsong. We take birdsong for granted, just as we take the seasons for granted and the weather for granted (that too may have to change). It’s a subtle wake-up call but an important one. And by simply reading the book we instantly become more aware of it, which I imagine is what author Richard Smyth intended. I even found myself weighing hitherto unmused matters such as was that a chack or a tack, a chip or a chirp? Who gives a fig, you may say, but only because you haven’t been listening. Birdsong, Smyth relates, is a language all its own, and every bird has its dialect, and even more regional than ours if it could just make itself heard above the din. Ever considered that birds may have to sing over our noise? Neither had I. Urban birds, according to Smyth, even start singing early in order to beat the first roar of the traffic and make themselves heard to potential partners. Mate or die; sing before the M25 hits rush hour; it’s a sobering thought that the birds’ fate should be so closely tied to ours. But then of course it is; it always has been.
Any Cop?: Listen harder, says Smyth, or there’ll be no nightingale to hear at all. Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird.