There may be some people living in Rye who can exist for most of the year without noticing or paying any attention to the birdsong serenades that go on from morning to night, all year round.
By Bill Lawyer
There may be some people living in Rye who can exist for most of the year without noticing or paying any attention to the birdsong serenades that go on from morning to night, all year round. But even the most oblivious among us probably take some note in the spring – particularly in May.
In May, Rye’s birdsong ramps up from a serenade to a full-scale symphony. That’s because in addition to the many species of migratory birds (robins, red-wing blackbirds, etc.) that settle down to nest here, we also get over 50 species that stop off here on their way further north. These include thrushes, vireos, and flycatchers.
Some of the most beautiful singing is provided by warblers, small birds that are mostly out of sight up in the tops of trees. Up there, they feed on insects to build up the strength to continue their migration to the deeper woodlands.
Local nature centers and bird sanctuaries become the mecca for people who want to learn more about what all that singing means, and who’s doing it. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website can be quite helpful as well.
We may like to think that the birds are “playing” their symphonies for our benefit, but naturalists remind us that courtship, defending territory, or communicating with nesting mates are the real reasons.
Perhaps coincidentally, this past month PBS ran a two-part dramatization of Sebastian Faulks’s novel, “Birdsong.” But there is a connection between the story and the songs around us here in Rye. Set in the area around Amiens in northern France, the novel and TV movie go back and forth in time from 1910 to the latter part of the World War 1 trench warfare, from 1916 to 1918.
No doubt many people who watched the televised version of “Birdsong” may have wondered what the title had to do with what was going on in the story. Birds and their song actually play a subtle but important part in conveying the novel’s theme.
The 1910 part of the story features a variety of lush, romantic visions of upper class life in the Somme countryside outside Amiens — like a Monet painting come to life. As the characters picnic and punt their afternoons away along the river, the twittering and singing of birdsongs fills out the tapestry of tranquility.
This idyllic existence is contrasted by the horrors of daily life in the British trenches, punctuated by the occasional mass slaughter when one side or the other attempted what are shown to be suicidal attacks. Here the only birdsong is that provided by the canaries used when digging tunnels under the enemy lines. When the canaries stop singing, that means the air is poisoned and everyone must get out immediately.
On several occasions, the camera pans out across the flat plains of northern France (although it was filmed in Hungary), to show the total devastation caused by the artillery bombardment – not a tree, shrub, or bird left in sight – just bare earth ribboned by barbwire, with craters filled with dead horses and dead people. To put this in the context of American warfare, it would be as if the battle of Gettysburg lasted for three years instead of three days.
The point about the birdsong title seems to be that nature in general – and birds in particular — does its best to keep the earth a place where beauty and tranquility can happen, despite the tendency of humans to jeopardize the future existence of all life. The birds don’t need us, but we need them. That’s what Rachel Carson was writing about in her book “Silent Spring.”
Can we stop and listen to the robin song? And learn from it? Right in our backyard?