In my darkest hour, the sound of birdsong was an injection of pure hope into my soul: CHARLIE CORBETT reveals how the soaring joy of skylarks and elegance of house martins helped him cope with the untimely death of his mother
It was the day my family got the news we never thought we’d hear. That my 66-year-old mother, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumour a month before, had a maximum of two years to live – if she was lucky.
For the first time in my life, words like ‘malignant’, ‘terminal’ and ‘palliative care’ were used in direct reference to someone I loved.
No one trains you for receiving bad news. I had no idea how to react. What to say. Who to speak to.
And that was how I found myself lying on a hillside near my Wiltshire home, in the rain, numb in every way, feeling that nobody in the world could help me. Not really. Not now.
And then I heard a skylark.
The soaring, rolling, cascading music rippling through the air above me was like an injection of neat hope into the soul.
For a few joyous minutes, the lark and his song transported me away from that grim day. Away from the drizzle and the dark thoughts. It released me.
I had been doing my best to reacquaint myself with the birds and other wildlife around me. But while I had done a reasonable job of learning the names and getting to know the sights and the sounds of the birds in a kind of half-hearted, box-ticking way, I had never before truly experienced the intense power nature could bestow.
Suddenly the countryside around felt alive to me in a way that it had never done before.
The skylark (pictured) played a central role in my birdsong epiphany as it lifted me in a dark hour, in a way nothing man-made could ever have achieved
The benefits I derived from reconnecting with the birds around me during the time of my darling mother’s final illness and death, and throughout the painful aftermath, were incalculable. I garnered much-needed mental ballast.
So much so that I believe everybody should have the chance to experience the same unadulterated joy I feel when I hear a blackbird’s song on a fresh spring morning, a song thrush singing at the end of the longest night, or when I watch the house martins arrive from Africa in the spring. It is life-saving.
Some of the birds I describe below will be more familiar to you than others. I’ve tried to select birds that not only mean a great deal to me and played a part in my mental rehabilitation, but which are also birds that live all around you that you can very easily see for yourself.
I am not an expert on birds, and I’m certainly not an expert in mental health. But I understand more clearly than I have ever done before that life is a cycle, and my mother’s death was an integral part of that.
Nature took her away from me and it won’t bring her back. But via nature I also found a way through my grief. It was the birds and the landscapes they inhabit that showed me the way.
Some days, when the shadow of the black dog grows particularly large – because it still does – I will wander up the side of a nearby hill and simply lie down in the grass.
Taking time to pay attention to nature, to be among nature, always has the effect of putting my problems into perspective. And it teaches me lessons about myself, and life, each and every day.
That skylark played a central role in my birdsong epiphany. It lifted me in a dark hour, in a way nothing man-made could ever have achieved. And it reinforced in me an awestruck wonder at the power of nature that has never left me since.
There is no better word to describe the feeling you have when you hear and see a skylark than ‘exaltation’. And I’m not alone in thinking that. ‘Exaltation’ is the collective noun for a group of skylarks. And it’s spot-on. I have no idea who it was that came up with all these collective nouns (a clattering of jackdaws, a murmuration of starlings, a charm of goldfinches). But whoever it was, they were damn good at their job.
If you’ve ever been a country-dweller, or spent time walking in open fields or over downland, the skylark will have formed the musical backdrop to your walk.
Next time you are pounding an open field, stop walking, cock your ear and listen. The best time to hear them is early morning or evening in the spring and early summertime. And if you hear that soaring, tinkling, joyous sound, and you’re still not sure, then you can make doubly sure by looking up in the air.
Because skylarks are one of the few birds that sing while they’re flying. If you look up and see a small streaky brown bird, with white tail flashes, hovering 30ft or so above your head, then you’ve correctly identified the little fella.
Happiness factor: The song of the skylark has genuine power. It can, and will, lift your spirits no matter what is happening in your life. Quite apart from the fact that in order to hear a skylark you will need to be in a wide open and windblown spot, devoid of people, pollution and concrete – a good source of happiness on its own.
Where to see one: If you are out and about in high downland or low arable fields, especially in spring and summer, you are very likely to hear and see a skylark. They make their nests in small depressions in the ground that are hard to spot.
What I love the most about house martins is that despite mankind’s ability to put men on the Moon and robots on Mars, and create intelligent phones that know what you want for lunch next Thursday, no one has yet worked out exactly where these miraculous migratory little creatures go each winter.
House martins, alongside swallows and swifts, arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa in our northern hemisphere gardens in April and May. They spend between six and seven months here, breeding and bringing joy, before heading back the 4,000 miles or so to – well, nobody really knows.
The house martin is one of nature’s most ingenious constructions: sleek, compact and devastatingly elegant in its blue-black and pristine white livery. If Steve Jobs had designed birds, rather than computers, it’s the sort of creature he would have built – a design classic.
The sleek and compact house martin is one of nature’s most ingenious constructions
Often confused with its close cousin the swallow, the house martin is the smallest of these summer tourists, with a stubby little forked tail and white undercarriage.
It won’t win any singing competitions, with its cheerful little clickety bleat, but if there were prizes for joyous swooping and gliding and mid-air acrobatics, the house martin’s trophy cabinet would be creaking at the sides.
I observed a group with intense interest one spring, watching them build their extraordinary muddy nests, glued to the side of the wall of my local pub.
I meditated on how far they’d come and how it is they know to return to exactly where they were born year after year. My car’s satnav can’t even get me to our nearest town without saying ‘Please make a U-turn’ at least three times, so how it is that these creatures can navigate to this precise spot from quite so far away every year like clockwork – and have the energy to do it with barely a single pit-stop – utterly defeats me.
Happiness factor: The sadness I feel at the disappearance of these creatures in late autumn is as profound as the unfettered delight I experience on their return in April and May. It is an annual milestone that injects summer powerfully into our collective consciousness.
Where to see one: House martins arrive in Europe in their thousands every spring. Most villages and towns have a colony. A great place to watch them is near water, where they skim the surface hunting for flying insects.
It is a truly heart-stopping sight to watch a barn owl hunt at sunset on a warm summer evening. What stands out, apart from the almost supernatural ghostliness of its pure white, brown and buff appearance, is the profound noiselessness of the whole affair.
Barn owls make no noise at all. And I don’t mean they are mainly quiet with a hint of a ‘swoosh’ if you listen carefully, but utter silence. They are nature’s silent assassins. Their heart-shaped faces direct high-frequency noises to their ears so that they can hunt by sound as well as sight, and their eyes are twice as sensitive to light as human eyes. In fact, it is thought that 75 per cent of a barn owl’s brain is devoted to hearing and vision. You really, really don’t want to be a small vole scrabbling about at night in the territory of a hungry barn owl.
Nature’s silent assassins, watching a barn owl hunt makes you feel you are in the presence of a creature that is at the very pinnacle of its game
But one of the best things about barn owls is how beautifully economical they are with their energy. Some might even dare to call them a little bit lazy.
When not in their breeding season between March and August – when a single bird can kill up to 1,000 mice and voles – a barn owl will roost for up to 22 hours a day. They are nature’s equivalent of the couch potato, who doesn’t leave the sofa all day except to pop out to the corner shop for a pint of milk and a can of beans before bed. And why wouldn’t you sit around all day if you were that good at your job?
Happiness factor: Watching a barn owl hunt makes you feel you are in the presence of a creature that is at the very pinnacle of its game. One of nature’s true professionals, it inspires in the observer intense calm and inner peace.
Where to see one: It is unlikely that you will spot a barn owl on a normal walk, firstly because they hunt only at night, and secondly because there are increasingly few large wildflower meadows – abundant with mice and voles – left in Britain. Or, indeed, disused barns for them to nest in. Many farmers provide nesting boxes for owls, and it won’t take much asking in a rural area to find out where a local barn owl is hunting. If you go out at night near a barn owl’s nest, in the breeding season in particular, you will have an 80 per cent chance of seeing or hearing one.
The king of birds
This is one of the smallest songbirds but with the most beautiful call – a euphoric rush of rising and tumbling notes that spray out of its tiny breast and into the grateful air. It is the Dolly Parton of the bird world: small, gutsy and with a voice that can be heard in three counties.
In fact, it is almost impossible to conceive of how such a tiny creature can emit such a huge noise. I also wonder constantly how on earth these little brown feathery golf balls – with their stubborn, perpendicular tails – survive a harsh winter. Perseverance and grit, perhaps, and coming together in large, life-affirming groups to conserve heat.
Despite its small stature – and general sweet dumpiness – the wren was, strangely, regarded by our ancestors as the ‘king of birds’. According to Greek legend the wily wren hid under the eagle’s wing and then flew even higher in order to take the regal crown in the race of all the birds for supremacy.
One of the smallest songbirds, the wren was regarded by our ancestors as the ‘king of birds’
So upset were its rivals about this rather intelligent trick that the king of the birds is forced to hide deep in bushes and build dense circular nests with tiny holes for access because, the legend has it, the other birds will kill it if given the chance. This might also explain why the wren’s Latin name is troglodytes, or cave-dweller.
Happiness factor: Wren song is one of the true miracles of everyday nature. There are very few descriptions that can truly do it justice. One writer who tried was bird-lover Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary during the First World War. He described a time ‘when a wren sprang into the air, and, singing in ecstasy as he flew, passed straight over me and over a cottage roof to some other place of bliss on the farther side: “like a blessing”, said one who was with me’. I have experienced that exact feeling. Wrens are truly a blessing.
Where to see one: Wrens can be found in any hedgerow, woodland, garden or park – in town and country. Anywhere, in fact, with thick undergrowth. They are one of the most widespread of all songbirds but suffer heavily in cold winters, when up to 25 per cent of them can die. You have a 90 per cent chance of seeing one in a park or your garden.
Nature’s samba dancer
Set against our subtle greens and browns and the grey skies, the kingfisher looks like an exquisitely adorned visitor from an Amazon rainforest. It lights up the riverbank with its exoticism, like a dazzling samba dancer skipping through a dimly lit London pub – as rare as it is astonishing.
There is something peculiarly satisfying about the soundlessness of its flight. If I am lucky enough to see a kingfisher fishing, I’ll watch, agog, as it spears into the water without making a noise or even a splash.
The ancient Greeks believed that kingfisher nests drifted on ocean currents, spreading calm for miles around. They knew it as the halcyon bird, with powers to still the wind and waves.
The reality of the kingfisher’s nest is, however, somewhat less glamorous. Far from spreading calm while drifting serenely on ocean currents, their nests are actually squalid little chambers on riverbanks full of half-digested fish bones and other refuse. It’s astonishing that such a wondrous miracle of nature can emerge from such unpromising surroundings – like a supermodel living in a squat.
The kingfisher looks like an exquisitely adorned visitor from an Amazon rainforest, like a dazzling samba dancer
Happiness factor: Of all the birds, there is none that embodies more the feeling of emerging from darkness into dazzling light than the kingfisher. When I spot that flash of burnished orange and electric blue spiriting itself over the top of the water like a silent low-flying Spitfire at zero degrees altitude, my heart jolts. Certainly, on the days when I see a kingfisher I don’t need family, friends or a therapist to calm my troubled soul. I have my halcyon bird and it bathes me in happy tranquillity.
Where to see one: Despite its bright plumage, the kingfisher can be hard to spot. The best way is to sit on the bank of a river or canal and just wait. Kingfishers like to find overhanging branches on which to perch and fish. Keep an eye out for the briefest of flashes of electric blue and orange as they speed along the surface of the water. You have about a 25 per cent chance of seeing one, with patience.
There is a Beatles song by Paul McCartney called Blackbird, which he wrote in 1968. The opening lyric describes a blackbird that sings in the middle of the night. Now, I don’t want to sound like a pedant, Paul, but the bird you’re most likely to hear sing in the dead of night is the song thrush – not the blackbird. In fact, not just in the dead of night but in the dead of winter, too, when no other bird sings.
Long before spring’s dawn chorus echoes hopefully across the land, this fine-featured and elegant songbird, with its buff-coloured back and creamy, freckled breast, will be belting out his cheerful tune. It acts as a powerful restorative to any fortunate soul who is lucky enough to hear it on one of those dank, bone-achingly cold mid-January mornings that do such a good job of sucking out any remaining dregs of optimism we might have had left over from Christmas.
I can tell you this because I was lucky enough to experience exactly that on a bleak midwinter morning when I was consumed by self-doubt and fear for the future. It was shortly after Mum had died. I was lying on my bed at goodness knows what hour and my mind was whirring at 200 revs per minute – unwelcome thoughts that were stumbling over themselves to invade my peace.
And then a dear old song thrush struck up.
The fine-featured and elegant song thrush, with its buff-coloured back and creamy, freckled breast, will be belting out his cheerful tune long before spring’s dawn chorus
He didn’t care about my problems, obviously. He’d most assuredly got his own life-and-death struggles that winter, but he chose that morning to settle in a tree outside my window and start to sing.
There are two ways to take a song thrush singing at the top of its voice outside your window at 4am. One is to reach for the nearest heavy object and lob it at said thrush, cursing him for keeping you awake when you’ve got so much to do today.
The other strategy is to wallow in that song. To let it massage your soul. To lie there contentedly and let the notes flow over you. So that is what I chose to do. And not just that morning but every morning of the grim month or so after Mum’s death, as the delicate thrush sang its beautiful, sweet melody.
Whenever my thoughts overwhelmed me at some ungodly hour, I knew that my song thrush would be back. Living, singing proof that life goes on.
Happiness factor: I cannot even imagine how I would have got through those darkest of winter days and nights without the song of the thrush. It pierces the air with a cannonade of sweet song at winter’s lowest moment – just when you’ve given up all hope of the spring, and happiness ever returning.
Where to see one: It used to be that most rural and suburban gardens had a song thrush nest in them, but the population has crashed over the past 40 years for reasons that are unclear: over-predation by cats, corvids and sparrowhawks, and a lack of food thanks to pesticides killing grubs and insects are the most likely causes.
If you are in a lightly built-up area – the suburbs or small towns and villages – there is about a 50 per cent chance of hearing a song thrush in late winter, spring and early summer.
Charlie Corbett, 2021
12 Birds To Save Your Life, by Charlie Corbett, is published by Michael Joseph on June 10, priced £14.99. To pre-order a copy for £13.34, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before June 20. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.
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