If you want to learn the instruments of the orchestra, it’s probably best not to start with The Rite of Spring. It’s great, but Stravinsky’s mind-blowing orchestration will perplex rather than inform the beginner. Best begin by listening to soloists.
That’s why autumn is the best place to start learning birdsong. The cacophony of the wild world’s annual rites of spring is too vast, too noisy, too various: like Stravinsky, it will only make your head spin. So I have started this book with the soloists: the birds that sing out in the autumn and on the fine days of winter.
In spring there are a thousand voices. In autumn, you are likely to hear only one. That is to say, just one complex and melodious bird-sound, one species that has what everybody will recognise as a song. If you listen out in a garden, a park or a patch of woodland in the autumn, I can virtually guarantee that the only song you will hear is the robin.
Once you have picked him out, you are on your way. Once you are tuned in, you will open your ears – and your heart and mind – to the wild world. It is not just a neat and clever trick of identification, rather, it is the royal road to pleasure and solace.
A knowledge of birdsong changes your understanding of the world. What matters is not that you can now tell a robin from a wren, but that you have established a connection with nature. Birdsong is no longer piped music and background blur: you are aware of real individuals making their living all around you. Once you have learned the basics of birdsong, you not only have music wherever you go – you also have the wild world.
Whistles from a garden croft
Here are the sounds to listen out for:
The soft, sweet sound of the robin is the one song you will reliably hear during the autumn. Some find it melancholy and claim that it gets sadder as winter arrives. For the robin, it is the song of life, survival and hope.
On days of unseasnal warmth you may sometimes hear a loud, almost violent, eruption of song from thickets. If this ends with a sustained trill, you have found a wren. It's amazing that so small a bird can make such a racket.
Dunnocks also burst into song on warm days. They chuck out a merry flat burble of notes, jumbled together by any old how. They are unspectacular birds with an unspectacular song; it is only in their sex lives that they are truly remarkable.
Birdwatching with You Eyes Closed by Simon Barnes is out on 3 November, published by Short Books.