Spring treasure 4: The Skylark

16/4/2018 Richard Jeffries suggested the skylark should be considered a representative of winter: instead of cold and darkness, he thought, why not ‘a sign of hope, a certainty of summer?’ It was his essay that helped me to think of winter in a different way.

I half expected to include the skylark in my winter treasures; after all, I have heard skylarks sing over the fields around the Hobbets on many a clear, mild day in February. It just happens that I didn’t hear one until April this year. It is likely I simply wasn’t in the right place at the right time; but the longer wait and the circumstances of my first skylark song were part of what made it so special.

One misty evening in mid-April, on a day that resembled midwinter far more than it did spring, I went for a walk to the Hobbets. I usually leave my phone at home when I go for a walk, but on this occasion I had bed and breakfast guests staying so I thought I’d better take it.

The scene there was unrecognisable as a spring scene. There was almost nothing to indicate that we were nearly halfway through April – until the far end of the reservoir came into view, where a haze of bright green just above the grey water surface provided the only clue: the iris leaves were just beginning to poke above the water (see header photo). A quarter of the way round the reservoir I became aware that a continuous melody was filling the air that had begun before I arrived and showed no signs of stopping. It was a skylark.

I stopped to listen, and then remembered the serendipitous presence of the phone in my pocket. It couldn’t manage a sound recording, but I could take a video clip. I only wanted the sound, but I realised afterwards that a video, contrasting the wintry scene with the magical sound filling the sky, might convey the wonder of the moment better than an audio recording, even if the sound quality left something to be desired.

It was one of the loudest, craziest skylark songs I have heard in a long time: sheer exuberance in the face of spring’s reluctance. It continued for several more minutes after I stopped recording. Apparently ‘song flights’ of over thirty minutes have been recorded, and I wondered if the skylark was the only bird to have mastered the art of circular breathing.

Only after a long search online at home did I even find a mention of their miraculous ability to sing for so long without a pause: apparently they actually take a series of ‘shallow mini-breaths’ which synchronise with the syllables in their song1. This sounds logical, but as soon as I try to conjure up the reality (up to 30 mini-breaths a second in the song of the canary?!) my powers of imagination fail me.

This explanation turned something magical into something scientifically mundane but still difficult to grasp. What I happened across next in the same article opened my eyes to something far more astounding and inexplicable:

‘British musician David Hindley slowed bird song down and discovered parallels between the skylark’s blizzard of notes and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; between the woodlark’s mind-numbingly complex song and J.S. Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. It changes its tune according to the rules of classical sonata form.’2

I will hardly be able to leave it at that: I will now have to search for a book on the subject. If there isn’t one, it will be a huge disappointment. I suddenly remember hearing an advert for a programme on the radio a few months ago, entitled ‘Is birdsong music?’ My immediate internal response was, ‘of course it is, what a silly question!’ I may even have exclaimed it aloud, such was my indignance. Now I know I was right.

1. http://www.pbs.org/lifeofbirds/songs/index.html
2. http://www.pbs.org/lifeofbirds/songs/index.html