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Hitting the Right Note

A review by Caitlin Kight

A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing, by Richard Smyth

Elliott and Thompson, 2017

208 pages—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14983

Between my sophomore and junior years in college, I worked as a field ornithologist for the Institute for Bird Populations (IBP). I had been a lifelong lover and watcher of birds, and though I could already identify most East Coast birds by sight, this three-month job, with a wonderful mentor and many hours of practice, changed my relationship with birds by letting me add birdsong identification to my repertoire. Now, as a birdsong researcher and perpetual birder, I have found that the knowledge I gained back then has permanently altered the way I interact with the environment around me: Everywhere I go, I hear familiar avian voices, and I understand much of what they are saying. It is magical.

This magic, and the different ways that people discover it and try to capture it, is at the heart of Richard Smyth’s A Sweet, Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing. In his prologue, Smyth establishes that he was once like me as I was before that wondrous summer of netting birds for IBP; in his words, he was “shut out of the birds’ conversation.” A Sweet, Wild Note examines what you lack before being initiated into the world of avian vocalizations—and how much you gain once you begin to understand what you are hearing. 

Smyth explains that it is not just about what we hear when the birds sing, but why we hear them the way we do. Combining anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and natural history, A Sweet, Wild Note is an exploration of the “gap … between the noises the birds are making and the songs we’re hearing,” a chance for readers to reevaluate their relationship to avian vocalizations and renew their appreciation of birdsong.

This approach is different from that taken by any of the many other books about bird vocalizations. Pete Marler and Hans Slabbekoorn’s 2004 Nature’s Music examines the science of bird vocalizations. Simon Barnes’s Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed from 2011 is more of an instruction manual. Why Birds Sing (2006), by David Rothenberg, contemplates what birdsong can tell us about human music, while Don Kroodsma’s 2016 Listening to a Continent Sing asks what birdsong can help us understand about ourselves. Even if you have read all of the above and more, Smyth’s book is still well worth your time.

A Sweet, Wild Note is, in a word, delightful. It is short and, yes, sweet. Each of its six chapters delves into a different aspect of the relationship between humans and birdsong. In “An Infinity of Possibilities,” Smyth describes birdsong as “a wonderfully malleable material” for poets and other human listeners. “What we hear in birdsong … is more often than not the resonant echo of our own feelings”; our experience of bird sound has shaped our literature, just as our literature has, in turn, shaped how we attempt to decode what we hear. 

The following chapter, “A Song of Many Parts,” ponders how we can reconcile the different, sometimes conflicting kinds of information about birdsong found in scientific and in cultural sources. Smyth points out that “like anything that’s unusual, and beautiful, and complex, and mysterious,” the experience of hearing birdsong “also makes us want to learn.” He obliges by summarizing the “why” and the “how” of birdsong, with reference to pioneering work that even many ornithologists are unaware of. (Having been one for years, I can confirm that very little of this early work is discussed or even cited today; we’ve come so far, but sometimes it is fruitful, and humbling, to recall the origins of our current knowledge). Anyone who has ever tried to describe or mimic birdsong will especially enjoy the passages featuring Graham Shortt, whom Smyth visits to learn just how one becomes versed in the “witchcraft” of birding by ear.

The third chapter, “Coming Home,” examines how birdsong—and the acoustic landscape in general—helps us feel at home in a particular place. Smyth predominantly discusses species and habitats native to Great Britain, but the sentiments here apply equally across all environments; his discussions may be particularly poignant for readers who are frequent travelers or, like me, expats nostalgic for the sounds of home. This chapter covers a lot of ground, weaving together quotations from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the bioacoustician Bernie Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra; relying on these and many other sources, Smyth concludes that birdsong is “a means of orientation; it’s embedded in habitat, landscape, and place.” This is something I’ve been trying to express for years, and I appreciate finding it described here in such eloquent terms.

“An Elusive Song” explores the virtually universal human desire to transcribe birdsong for human musicians. There is an enchanting description of a human-nightingale duet broadcasted live by the BBC from a Surrey woodland in 1924; the human half of that performance, the cellist Beatrice Harrison, wrote about the experience in her autobiography, The Cello and the Nightingales. This and the many other relatively obscure works Smyth cites are the source of many wonderful anecdotes throughout his book. Perhaps my favorite among these historical sources is Sir Edward Grey’s 1927 The Charm of Birds; one of the greatest services Smyth performs is bringing attention to this book, which I can confirm is a real treasure.

In “A Captive Melody,” Smyth considers how our relationship to birdsong changes when the song is produced not in the wild, but by birds we have brought into captivity. From here it is not a huge leap to the topic of Chapter 6, “A Hush Descends”: the plight of birds and other wildlife in the modern world. These final two chapters are, inevitably, more melancholy than the rest of the book: For all the love many of us feel for birds and their uplifting voices, our species has a habit of making decisions that threaten the future of these natural wonders. Smyth approaches this difficult topic philosophically, wondering how culture—“all the poetry, all the music, the meditations, the potent sonic iconography of birdsong”—has affected the way we feel towards the animals that we encounter every day in real life. He asks some profound questions that I won’t disclose here for fear of spoiling their impact, but suffice it to say that Smyth continues to hope that we will be able to listen to birds for generations to come.

 

Towards the end of A Sweet, Wild Note, the author suggests that hearing birdsong allows us to experience “a feeling of continuity.” Because the personal and cultural meanings we assign to those sounds are both learned and constructed, birds “have a habit of telling us back our own tales.” For those of us who love birds and the sounds they make, these tales involve good friends, beautiful places, entertaining adventures, and jaw-dropping encounters—in short, all the magic of finding and watching wild birds. Richard Smyth’s book offers the reader a chance to be more mindful and aware, so that the next time we hear a wild bird’s note, we will have a fuller appreciation of its many associations and connotations—and it will sound even sweeter.

– Caitlin Kight is a Senior Academic Developer at the University of Exeter and an Adjunct Fellow at the Dakshin Foundation. A science communicator with a background in avian bioacoustics and behavioral ecology, Caitlin edits and writes for Current Conservation magazine and contributes to a variety of other natural history publications.

Recommended citation:

Kight, C. 2019. Hitting the Right Note [a review of A Sweet, Wild Note, by Richard Smyth]. Birding 51(4): 65–66.

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