I was walking down the road to my house when I heard an oystercatcher. They nest on the marshland here and in a few weeks they’ll be making their usual cheery racket. Never very calm birds, always piping away in the great excitement of being alive.
This oystercatcher was piping from the top of a tall tree, which is kind of unusual for a wading bird. Because of course, it wasn’t an oystercatcher at all: it was a song thrush pretending to be one.
It was the second time I had heard a song thrush this year: the first a good two weeks back, yelling rhythmic defiance to cold weather of the closing day. This oystercatcher was perhaps a little half-hearted, but good to hear all the same. The year is turning.
Song thrushes like to improvise. They are not exact and pedantic mimics like the starlings on my roof that do such a good curlew imitation. A song thrush works on repetition: one phrase repeated two, three or four times, and then a change.
They will often take a sound from their surrounding world and bring it into the repertoire. Nuthatch is a great favourite in places with good stands of mature trees: out my way they reflect the watery landscape they survey as they sing. They sing the world they know.
And as they do so they make each borrowed element their own: not a string of witless bits of mimicry but a coherent whole, each individual sound adapted and made personal, so that sometimes the original source gets a little lost. A touch of jazz in these improvisations: they will bring in sirens, telephones, reversing tractors and human whistles into their compositions as well as sounds from the natural world.
It seems that they do this with conscious wit: deliberately expanding their repertoire as well as the power of their song, to make themselves more attractive to potential mates and more forbidding to potential rivals.
All that’s good biology. But it’s not the whole story: facts never can be. Human musicians win power and prestige with their excellence: but they can’t do that unless they first love the music for itself and lose themselves inside it.
And I bet it’s just the same for the song thrush warming up his oystercatcher riff for the greatest gig of them all. The one called spring.