By Richard Smyth Elliott & Thompson, 2017; hbk, 190pp ISBN 978-1-78396-314-0; £14.99 While I was pondering on what to write about this book, a female Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus carried off the cock Blackbird Turdus merula whose visits to our garden I had been enjoying for weeks. The Blackbird had been a bit of a wimp when it came to seeing off the male from next door, but when it came to proclaiming himself and his patch, he was a virtuoso in song. His voice, I thought, was something I would really miss in the spring evenings. Of course, another male took his place very quickly, and he turned out to be a fine singer too. All this, I knew as a lifelong birder, was as it should be; but, because of this book, I did pause to wonder just what it is about the song of these birds – any birds, for that matter – that gives me so much pleasure. Richard Smyth wonders this too, and, to quote the book’s subtitle, examines ‘what we hear when the birds sing’. The how and the why of singing are briefly explained (succinctly and accurately), but the bulk of the book concerns our responses and reactions, which turn out to be very varied. The intriguing story takes us through music and poetry in some detail, and we find everything from what you might call ‘background music’ to some quite tortured soul-searching. There are such disparate stories as, for example, how the songs of Skylarks Alauda arvensis brought hope and some solace to soldiers in the hell of Great War trenches, and the famous 1924 recorded duet featuring Beatrice Harrison on cello and a Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos. There is a lot more too, and lots of musing on what it all means. It is difficult to sum up this book in a short review. I am going to have to read it again, at least once, to try and get my thoughts in order, but what I can say is that I am enjoying it and finding plenty to think about. If I have made any personal conclusions, they revolve around not just a fascination with the amazing sounds and music birds make but also around atmosphere, places, remembered situations and, yes, simple pleasure and contentment. Bird song is something that helps to take me beyond facts, figures and lists, and reminds me that, rather like Richard Smyth, I am basically an old-fashioned birdwatcher at heart. For me, the book might have been even better if it had ranged a bit wider and brought in such wonderfully evocative sounds as Greenshanks Tringa nebularia calling in wild places, Buzzards mewing high overhead, the noise of a Kittiwake Rissa trydactyla colony... But it is a very good little book, nicely written, and you should definitely read it. Mike Everett
Volume: 
Issue 9

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