Blackbird singing at the break of dawn

· mumblings ·

We’ve just got back from another peaceful break in North Norfolk. It has been an incredibly busy start to the year, and I am off on a work trip to Indonesia next weekend, so it was something of an island of tranquillity in a sea of turbulence. Or something like that. As usual, we enjoyed walking (I’ve posted some photos on Flickr), eating some amazing food, and getting the best and most uninterrupted nights of sleep we have had for ages. However, the absolute highlight of the trip for me was a blackbird.

His song woke me at dawn on the first morning, and on every morning after that. I’ve heard the song of many species of birds, and I have a lot of favourites, but if I could only listen to one kind of bird song for the rest of my life, it would have to be that of the blackbird. If you don’t have blackbirds (Turdus merula) where you live, or you’ve never heard one sing, you’re missing out. Their voice is mellow and fluting (and at a lovely pitch for human ears to listen to), but also very varied, with trills, clucks and burred notes. Each song is made up of short phrases, followed by a short rests, and because each phrase seems to be unique, you’re always wondering what will be coming in the next phrase. In the rests, you can pause to appreciate what you’ve just heard, and anticipate the pleasures of the next phrase. The pauses are often about the same length as the phrases, and I often repeat what the blackbird has just sung in my head to savour it, so it feels like a kind of cross-species call and response song. I never tire of listening to them, and often stop in my tracks do so, wherever I am.

This particular blackbird surpassed my already high expectations for his species. Part of my delight in his song was undoubtedly the setting. The quiet location of the cottage we stayed in and the gloriously cosy duvet on the bed meant that we could sleep with the window wide open, the cool night air and the calls of owls drifting over us while we were warm beneath the duvet. He sang just before dawn started to break, while the room was soft and dark. I could lie with my eyes closed in my cosy nest, while the sweet brilliance of his song flared like a struck match against the darkness. When he had finished, I could drift seamlessly back to sleep, knowing that I had nothing pressing to do, nowhere I had to be.

The other reason for my delight was that this particular blackbird had a strikingly unusual voice. It is difficult to know how to describe the tone and timbre of his voice, but it was rather like the difference between a muted and an unmuted trumpet. Blackbirds usually have a rather full, rich voice, but his had the concentrated intensity of a muted brass instrument. His phrases were urgent and full of wild ornamentation, with shorter pauses before he launched the next incredible variation.

I don’t know if he was a young male, or just the rebel jazz innovator of his species, but I went to bed each night looking forward to being woken at dawn by his next composition. I miss his song already. And that duvet.