It’s never too early for spring song

Airedale, West Yorkshire A book from a century ago tells me when I might hear the ‘spring’ songs of each common songbird

It's never too early for spring song
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A black billed magpie.
Photograph: Gerard Lacz/Rex/Shutterstock

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This article titled “It’s never too early for spring song” was written by Richard Smyth, for The Guardian on Saturday 14th January 2017 05.30 UTC

The robin has uncorked its spring song. This one – a male, I suspect, giving it some welly in the upper reaches of a bare horse chestnut – is the loudest, the fullest, I’ve heard so far.

David Lack, the author of the landmark 1943 study The Life of the Robin, wrote that its autumn song was “thinner and less rich” than its spring reprise. In autumn, robins are more likely to mutter, to essay half-hearted impersonations of other birds, to engage in circling, absent-minded vocalisations known as sub-song, like a man whistling idly to himself as he walks in the woods.

The full-blooded “spring” song is actually often broken out before the advent calendar is half-opened, and, like now, sung when January is biting deep and the weather could hardly feel less spring-like. It’s a reminder that spring is not so much a moveable feast as a drawn-out process of many stages, many steps.

I have a bird-book from a century ago that tells me when I should expect to hear the “spring” songs of each common songbird. Bird Life Throughout the Year is precise right down to the day (not quite as silly as it sounds: the author, John H Salter, points out that the dates are averages calculated from dozens of observations).

Spring birdsong, by Salter’s calendar, reaches right back to early October, when the dunnocks strike up their fast, sibilant song (a bit like a robin played back at the wrong speed). He has the robin chiming in on 3 January, the blackbird on the 12th, the great tit on the 18th. The 25th, he says, will see “rooks coquetting”.

We have more magpies than rooks around here; of these – raucous, iridescent, bandit-masked – Salter says that they will gather noisily together in February, “the subject under discussion being evidently connected with matters matrimonial”.

Our magpies are ahead of schedule: we’ve already seen them in pairs, visiting their scruffy old nests, derelict since May: fixer-uppers, yes, but with a bit of work they’ll be good for another spring. Whenever spring is.

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