Thursday, 28 December 2017

No 54 - The solace of birds

'Batis and acacia' (c) Dan Wylie
Most mornings, for a few months, I’ve been awakened at first light by a rattling flurry of sharp sound. The cat would startle up; I’d wonder if someone was knocking, or tossing hard seeds onto the roof... We got to know soon enough that it's a testosterone-loaded little Cape Batis, very neatly dressed in black, white and russet suit, but positively furious at seeing his reflection in the dawn light on the eastern window. You’d think after a couple of weeks he would twig that this was not a rival male, but a virtual bird, a fake-news bird, not worth expending all those calories on. But no, self-recognition not being a strong point, or maybe actually enjoying a kind of gym session, on and on he goes at it. Sometimes he is joined by an African Paradise-Flycatcher, resplendent in breeding brick-red colour, or a Dark-capped Bulbul. Are they learning from each other?

I wonder if a Klaas’s Cuckoo chick somewhere is being deprived by this distraction, as the Batis is a prime sucker for the cuckoos to foist their eggs on – and already I can hear an immigrant cuckoo lilting, My-iki, my-iki in the pines upslope of my cottage, its white belly making it all but invisible against the paling sky. Nearer to hand, the Batis churrs and grouses. As Terry Oatley has written, this is a hard sound to describe; he finds the only satisfying one is C J ‘Jack’ Skead’s, likening it to pebbles being rolled together. I think of it as more woody than stony, a sort of rolling gurRRR-rrRRRrrr-rrr. But it has always been a problem for the bird-guide compilers to describe bird-song. The old Roberts guide (eds. McLachan & Liversidge) was quite richly poetic: I think it was the Pel’s Fishing Owl’s call that was compared to the cry of a desperate soul falling into the pit of hell! No one ever having heard such a soul, actually, this would not do for the more recent scientific generation, as represented by Gordon Maclean, compiler of the 1984 Roberts, the hefty edition with its handsome maroon dust-jacket. Though the descriptions of songs became blander, Maclean did include sonograms, little graph-like diagrams like ECG printouts, which I found very useful in gauging relative smoothness or harshness of calls, time intervals, and more. In the yet more recent Roberts field-guide (Chittenden, 2007), much pared down in the interests of making it more convenient to carry about, the sonograms have disappeared. For the Batis, Maclean repeated the “two stones” notion, as does Chittenden; but without amplification it’s not so useful.  The massive seventh edition (Hockey et al), despite being 1200 large-format pages long, has done away with the apostrophe after Roberts, the sonograms and the stones: the Batis now says chewarra-warra-warra, which is quite good, even if it reminds me of Tigger trying unsuccessfully to be fierce in Winnie the Pooh.

Why do I even possess these books – alongside two huge volumes of the Bird Atlas project, the two beautifully-illustrated volumes of Geoff McIlleron and Peter Ginn’s Ultimate Companion, Peter Steyn’s Birds of Prey, a battered Newman’s field guide, and still others? After all, I am far from being a dedicated “twitcher”, more a sporadic observer, and these books are far more technical and detailed than I will ever need. I blame the bird atlas project, which my mother and I participated in for a time in its first round; that educative experience drew me into buying the atlases when they were published (obviously, since our names were in the back, hoo-hah!). Then I bought more, and more... Apparently South Africans buy more bird books per capita than any other nation on earth. Yet I do like to know who I’m seeing and attach a name. A name confers a certain intimacy on a raw observation, allows me to feel more at home and attuned, even if the bird itself doesn’t give a tiny white poep about your human sense of intimacy.

The clumsiness of our attempts to describe birdsong means: dump the books, go out and listen. There is no experience but the experience. I take a chair onto the front lawn, look out over the forest tree-tops, the coastal plain beyond, sit and listen. A certain kind of knowledge and layering of meaning comes from the books, to be sure; a different kind from memory and experience. A number of species in this forest also occur in my home forest of eastern Zimbabwe, so are heavy with evocative memory. And they are all present this crystalline morning, talking to and past and over and despite one another.

The Batises (Batii?) are worra-worra-ing and chirping; White-Eyes chitter in a little group dashing from erythrina to wild-olive; Dark-capped Bulbuls sound fruity greetings from the leaf-tops of hubris. These are the little people, but soon along come the royals, first bounding along the branches, half-kangaroo half-bird, eyebrows strikingly painted white on green, jungle geishas, then with a growling churr launch through the air between trees with a flash of wing as crimson as a caesar’s robe. Knysna Louries – sorry, Turacos (I’m of that generation still stuck with the ‘old’ names). One, and another, three, and four: then the arching, raucous call: graaah, graaah, graah. My mother used to say that that call, depending on strength and rhythmic duration, presaged mist or summer storm. I was a bit dubious: it was both the rainy and the breeding season, so the two were likely to coincide quite a bit anyway. But it was a little myth that I nurtured, part of how we identified with and interpreted those who shared the forest with us. Damn the taxonomists, who now insist that what we had back in the Vumba were Livingstone’s turacos, with a slightly pointier crest and a slightly bluer tail. Well, they are like enough, and remain as magnificently aristocratic and broad-voiced, aristocrats and criers of rain.

There are other littlies who will talk down kings, whose voices are louder than climate-change denialists’, exceeding their bodily importance a thousand-fold. Most vociferous this morning is the Bar-throated Apalis; I think of him as frenchified, dapper and lively and piping Phil-IPPE, phil-IPPE, phil-IPPE. The indefatigable Jack Skead noticed that some individuals’ throat bars were thicker than others. Theories competed like waxbills at a birdbath. Was it dimorphic? Was it a sex symbol, like a flashier cravat? Was it just that the feathers lay at different angles at different times? Lately, it’s said that a thicker bar signifies greater territory and dominance. How would that even work? OK, my territory is one hundred and twelve wingbeats wide, let me add two millimetres to my bar, like a corporal promoting himself to a sergeant? There remain profound mysteries in such relationships between colour and behaviour.

The middle classes are also coming into voice: Lesser Striped Swallows taking an interest in my back porch with little gazoo-like squeaks; Rock Pigeons’ chesty love-notes on the roofline; one Southern Boubou shranking out a sound like shook foil, answered by another with a high bright cry, clearer than a bell. Forget your legend- and poetry-saturated English lark and nightingale – colourless calls in comparison with our Oriole’s ringing clarion, or the Burchell’s Coucal’s falling-and-rising bubbling, somewhere between clarinet and harp. It is an orchestra this morning, albeit one thoroughly disorganised and aleatory. A clatter of vociferous Redwinged Starlings, too, creaking and glurping and scolding the cat. They're often accused of excessive aggression, but none of my books mention that they mourn. I once saw a group, on a road in town, surrounding the body of a flock member that had been killed by a car. They said little or nothing for a while; then by some secret signal one starling hopped forward and covered the body in a flurry of frantic shivering feathers and wings. This was explained to me as a pseudo-sexual act, perhaps a futile effort to revive the dead; but, as that individual backs off and, after a quiet interval, another comes forward and does the same, it looks more like a ritual, respectful and concerned and arranged.

Who is this - Steppe Buzzard?
Now the thermals rise with a seaborne sough, bringing in some of the big guys: raptors. Never all at once, of course, but there is the drawn-out kwheee of a Long-crested Eagle, who is often to be seen perched on poles alongside the cuttings near town. I can anticipate the sharper yelp of the Jackal Buzzard, or the spiralling continuous yow-yow-YOW-yow-yow of a Crowned Eagle displaying and looping for his mate. A little worry for my cat, who could be easily taken by this huge predator: I have a vivid memory from the Vumba of a Crowned Eagle snatching a young Somango monkey off an acacia tree-top right below my bedroom window. And maybe a Fish Eagle will wander up from a coastal watercourse, to utter that silvery thrilling cry that is in my memory forever welded with the dawn honking of hippos and the booming of Ground Hornbills and the powerful silky slide of the Zambezi River.

The thermals are also lifting a cabal of White-necked Ravens into the lively sky. There are far fewer of them than just a few years ago; has there been some shift in local migratory patterns, or have too many been poisoned by farmers putting out toxic carcasses for the odd jackal and rippling destructively and blindly out into vast ecosystems? At any rate, these croaking priests of the air are playing on the wind – it is surely playing, a cavorting that has nothing to do with preparing for a hunt: a revelling in the gift of flight, a passing fixation on formation-flying, an occasional mock aerial joust. In his fascinating book, Pleasurable Kingdom, Jonathan Balcombe argues that seeking of pleasure is as potent an evolutionary force as Darwinian competition for resources. Birds, he thinks, enjoy singing; he cites philosopher and ornithologist Charles Hartshorne:

'Raven Games' (c) Dan Wylie
There is no conflict between ‘birds sing for pleasure’ and ‘they sing to maintain territory or attract mates.’ The more essential an activity in the whole life of the bird, the greater the proportion of the bird’s pleasure which is realised in that activity.

And it’s just about impossible not to feel that pleasure and pride inflect the singing in the thickets below me of a Red-capped Robinchat (the old Natal Robin; only a committee could rename a bird whose cap is not at all red but at best, according to the guides, “cinnamon-brown”). At any rate, this Robin is going great guns, mimicking a Crowned Eagle, sliding into a flycatcher screek, a riff of gardener’s lazy whistle, a couple of inventive sequences of his own, back to a modified snatch of eagle – astonishingly variable,  unique to this individual and, well, happy. Balcombe also quotes Joseph Wood Krutch, writing in 1956:

When I hear a particular robin singing on a bough – I do not think: ‘Irritable protoplasm so organized as to succeed in the struggle for existence’.

I could go on and on, just with what I’ve heard in an hour – a web of sound-textures melding with the scent of sap rising off complexities of vegetation as the day heats up. In our addled, politicised, monetised world, the birds are my distraction, solace, unselfconscious Mercurys of wisdom and unalloyed delight. So many people are oblivious to all this; even most of my eco-literature students have proven woefully ignorant of the extraordinary interlacing of sound and colour, texture and scent that makes up such a multidimensional sensory experience: their smartphone-centred world, for all its globalised reach, can come nowhere near to so deeply engaging the complete person. 

And without learning to love all this, how can we know we need to save it, or would want to? 


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