It’s easy to imagine why some birds appeal so well to our myth-conjuring habits. I think particularly of those species that make a skill of obscurity. Crepuscular birds excel in shadow—the nightjar or woodcock are no more than ghostly silhouettes in dusk-dark. By day you’ve not a chance—their plumage is the very stuff of earth, intricate and cryptic patterns of leaf-litter, mulch, soil.
The bird that most comes to mind for these evasive sleights, though, is the bittern. It does not need darkness; this bird has perfected invisibility in specialist reed bed living. The woodcock’s argillaceous plumage is matched in the bittern by habitat imitation so effective it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed in metamorphosis, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks. It’s colour and striations mimic the close, vertical world of marsh and fen exactly, especially so when the bird lifts its beak right up, narrows itself to reed-thinness and sways gently with the wind-rustling stems.
This morning I’ve been waiting since dawn at Ham Wall RSPB reserve for the briefest of glimpses. It’s April and I can hear one male booming—a sonorous, eerie bass note that carries over a mile. It’s this aspect of the bird, in fact, that humans have responded to for millennia. The many dialect terms for the bittern show alliterative playfulness with the bird’s reverberations: butter bump, bog bumper, bog blutter. These marvellous names go way back. In the Anglo-Saxon age, when King Alfred was hiding out here on the swampy Levels, the bird was a raredumle, probably meaning something like ‘reed-boomer’. By the late Middle Ages, the vernacular term was miredromble, but the English language also adopted French bitour, which became ‘bittern’. The strange booming spurred inventive explanations about how ‘a bitore bombleth in the myre’ by lowering its head ‘unto the water doun’ (Chaucer), or blowing through a reed. Inevitably, the supernatural aspect of the disembodied noise associated it with omen and disaster.
The old names alert us to the priority given to bird sound in the past, and even now the bittern is certainly a bird more encountered by its unique call than sight. Its presence in the once extensive marshes of Britain bred inventive myths down the centuries. Here on the Levels, bitterns stalked the prehistoric swamps alongside pelicans, cranes and white-tailed eagles. Neolithic tracks across the marsh still exist, preserved in peat beneath the watery landscapes recreated in recent years. What did our prehistoric ancestors make of the bittern’s booming call? What was their word for the bird? We’ll never know, but surely they were equally struck by its eldritch presence. Perhaps those medieval myths and names reach back this far.
Like many of Britain’s fen and marshland birds, the bittern became extinct. It recolonised in the early twentieth century after an absence of 50 years, but numbers remained low and as recently as 1997 there were only 11 booming males. Thanks to hard conservation work, 46 males have been estimated calling on the Avalon Marshes this spring in Somerset alone, the densest population anywhere in the country. Our names and myths recall how elemental bitterns are to this habitat, as much as reed and peat and water. It is joyously encouraging that a bird so intimately rooted in these special places is not lost.
When it comes to favourites, certain British birds nudge their way into the top ranks repeatedly: the robin – unofficially Britain’s top choice – is predictable enough, as are other garden species, such as blue tit and blackbird, or perhaps something less commonly seen; a barn owl or kingfisher. I suspect my own favourite, though, is shared by few, and would never occur to anyone curious enough to hazard a guess. Fieldfares are unfamiliar to many, a birder’s bird maybe, unnoticed in the hedgerows of sodden ploughlands in such short and dreary days. But these mobster thrushes are mysterious and attractive. They exist like the promise of hard snow – overnight, sudden and thrilling, they come with the boreal cold.
This year, as every year, I have been walking and driving the lanes in search of fieldfares and their thrush cousins, redwings, mostly across the flatlands of Romney Marsh not far from home in Kent. These winter nomads breed right across sub-arctic Scandinavia and the Baltic regions, making their annual incursions each October and November to wander and raze berry harvests in southern Europe. I found a roving flock last November, one bright and blue morning when it was painfully cold. I knew the birds were there long before I saw them, announcing their presence with restless stony calls, a ringing magpie ‘chak-chak’. For all this commotion, they can be frustratingly difficult to catch in good view. They remain teasingly invisible in the bare but impenetrable thorns. Suddenly, at the moment you become just too close, they burst from cover as though the trees have kept their leaves all along to release just now in a brisk gust. The action is surrounded by accelerating notes that rise in pitch and dynamics, scattering with as much force as the birds themselves. These cackling fits disappear again just metres down the frosted path, though some birds veer upwards to sit defiantly at the top branches. They mark my advance like a procession, always just ahead and out of reach, as though alarmed and mocking all at once.
The fieldfare’s evasive presence seems fittingly mirrored in their slight cultural legacy. The name as we have it is certainly medieval, but its origins, although almost certainly older (Old English feld ‘field’ + fara ‘to go’), are all but lost, scantily and obscurely present in the inky tracks of just one or two Anglo-Saxon scripts for scholars obsessed with such things to ponder and trace. Fieldfares, curiously in my view, have never attracted poetic attention in the way of so many other British species. John Clare, of course, does not forget them as passing details: they ‘chatter in the whistling thorn’ (‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’) or ‘come and go on winter’s chilling wing’ (Shepherd’s Calendar, March). At the end of the medieval period, though, it is clear that fieldfares did not go unnoticed: Chaucer ends his catalogue of birds in The Parliament of Fowls, unexpectedly, with the ‘frosty feldefare’, and in the Sherborne Missal (c. 1400), there is a remarkable titled image of the bird, accurately depicted in all its striking colours (see here for some of the images, although the fieldfare page is not included).
I find a new, hustling chatter of fieldfares on Romney Marsh again this week in mid-February. By now, with most berries stripped, they are dispersing to the fields, roaming in big numbers. Chaucer’s phrase, I’d say, has it right – their hoary plumage is a precise configuration of winter splendour, even on a day as drab and wet as this. They mark extremes: that pristine white underwing and belly, that storm-grey hood, are balanced with colours that flare like hibernal dusks, or the light and warmth of indoors we seek against such cold – the colour of smoky whisky, or the slow burn of wood fires. I follow fieldfares across tree-lined fields, follow their flights down hawthorn paths to be with all that clattering verve that turns and turns again straight into the wind.
The last decade has seen a surge of ornithological interest in the complexities and mysteries of bird songs and calls. It’s been known for some time that certain species have remarkable mimic abilities (like the marsh warbler who intentionally weaves other species’ songs into its own repertoire, or the incredible lyre bird who can imitate just about any sound on the planet), but more recently birds’ voices have also played a major part in identifying new or split species (two species so alike that formerly they have been considered one, or subspecies of one). The popular Sound Approach project has demonstrated the need for taxonomic re-categorisation amongst certain Eurasian owls, for instance, and even the discovery of a completely new species. As recently as 2014, a bird heard in China led to a whole new avian family. There is no doubt that modern technological advancements are critical to all this new research. As much as we do know, this science wizardry also reminds us that where nonhuman communications are concerned, we barely know anything.
In essence though, all of this focus on bird sound is nothing new. Various classical authors were already clued into the virtuosity and intricate meaning of birds’ voices. One of the most famous examples is Pliny the Elder’s (1st century AD) ornate description of the nightingale’s song in his Natural History, which employs the terminology of skilled musicianship to convey the bird’s brilliance:
[T]hen there is the consummate knowledge of music in a single bird: the sound is given out with modulations, and now is drawn out into a long note with one continuous breath, now varied by managing the breath, now made staccato by checking it, or linked together by prolonging it, or carried on by holding it back; or it is suddenly lowered, and at times sinks into a mere murmur, loud, low, bass, treble, with trills, with long notes, modulated when this seems good – soprano, mezzo, baritone; and briefly all the devices in that tiny throat which human science has devised with all the elaborate mechanism of the flute. (10:43)
There is obviously an element of poetic conceit in this, but Pliny uses the language of human music to attempt describing something as intricate and complex in its own way (listen here, and just for fun, try here to translate any word into nightingale ‘speak’!)
Our modern knowledge, too, of the learning and teaching abilities of birds – like the fairy wren that teaches its unborn chicks a food ‘code’ to deal with cuckoo impostors – was pre-empted by the ancients:
As for starlings and crows and parrots which learn to talk and afford their teachers so malleable and imitative a vocal current to train and discipline, they seem to me to be champions and advocates of the other animals in their ability to learn, instructing us in some measure that they too are endowed with both rational utterance and with articulate voice … Now since there is more reason in teaching than in learning, we must yield assent to Aristotle when he says that animals do teach: a nightingale, in fact, has been observed instructing her young how to sing. (Plutarch, On the Intelligence of Animals)
Despite these minority voices that recognised the innate and intended meaning of bird vocalisations, the prevailing attitude systematically divided human and nonhuman voices – the first was rational and the second nothing more than instinctive repetition. This was the customary philosophy that led into and endured throughout the Christianised Middle Ages, and the rational/irrational adage became common place. So Saint Augustine remarked that ‘either one would say that magpies, parrots, and crows are rational animals, or you have recklessly named imitation an art’ (On Music), and centuries later the Flemish theologian Thomas de Cantimpré could still state simply and with conviction that ‘the human voice is articulate, and animal inarticulate’ (Liber de natura rerum, I.xxvi).
However, as in the classical period, there were more free-thinking writers that spoke out for misrepresented nonhuman voices. It is quite clear from Old English glossaries that at least some Anglo-Saxon people were competent listeners. A large number of species are not named according to their appearance, as is the modern preference, but rather according to their song or call. And so we have, to name just a handful: hrafn (raven); ceo (chough); finc (finch – the typical ‘pink pink’ sound of a chaffinch); maew (gull); rardumle (bittern – ‘reedboomer’); stangella (presumably stonechat – ‘stone-yeller’); nihtegale (nightingale) cran (Isidore of Seville, a 7th century bishop, wrote in his Etymologies that the crane in Latin (grus) is named for its trumpeting call).
Perhaps more interesting, though, are those moments where writers are forced to admit, willingly or otherwise, that translating nonhuman sounds isn’t always straightforward, and sometimes is just darned impossible. In Aldhelm’s Rules of Metre (7th century), for example, a teacher attempting to give the utterances of all sorts of nonhuman beings to his student is forced to say that storks … well, ‘make a stork noise’ and ‘kites make kite noises’. To Aldhelm, of course, this would only prove his point – that these are irrational voices, but it also inadvertently exposes the gulf between different modes of expression and their meanings. To quote another classical author: ‘even if we do not understand the utterances of the so-called irrational animals, still it is not improbable that they converse’ (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, I.73-6). In moments like these, the limitations of human languages are clear too – they cannot adequately cross boundaries.
Problems with translation become a key issue in a well-known late medieval Chaucer poem. The Parliament of Fowls is a dream vision bird debate poem – a popular form at the time in which two or more birds representing human individuals or perspectives conduct a formal argument as witnessed by a human narrator in a dream. In this case, the topic is love (or breeding), and Chaucer creates a great deal of humour by allowing the assembly to fall into chaos because the lowly birds (worm and seed eaters) disagree with the lofty pretensions of the birds of prey who want to conduct themselves according to the rules of courtly love. For certain birds, like the goose and the duck, this is all too much – why on earth would you spend time pining after an unrequited love when there are so many others to choose from?! Just get on and pick a mate! In Chaucer’s poem, that is, birds fail to consistently represent human beings; they keep on doing and saying birdy things.
The moment in the poem that has preoccupied me over the last year (for the full extent, see here) concerns these birds:
The goos, the cokkow, and the doke also So cryede, “Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!” hye, That thourgh myne eres the noyse wente tho.
The goose, the cuckoo, and the duck also Cried, ‘Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!’ so loudly That the noise went then right through my ears.
What is strange about line 499 is that it is the one and only instance of phonetically-rendered bird call in the entire debate. Elsewhere, as is conventionally the case, birds speak a human language (or rather, they never actually speak in their own language – the voice is human from the start, only inserted into bird bodies). What then are we to make of a line that has the birds momentarily cry out in a transcription that, like the quacking duck in the marginal illustration above, at least seems to represent genuine birds’ vocalisations?
In my view, when the birds stop talking English and suddenly speak out in a strange semiotic mode, Chaucer is playing with the same sorts of curiosities that turn up in that sound wordlist from Aldhelm – there is a fault in the transmission. It raises all sorts of interesting questions concerning translation between species in the poem: are we to imagine that the line stands as his attempt to translate what he denounces as irrational ‘noyse’ elsewhere? In which case, why does he not do so in Middle English as at all other times in the debate? Are we to understand, maybe, that the dream enables the fantasy of nonhuman to human understanding, and that the birds do not actually speak English to each other? Or perhaps the birds’ utterances indicate something incomprehensible to the narrator – accurately reported, anomalous bird sounds amongst voices that otherwise genuinely speak English? The line, in fact, is doubly complex because it both conveys real bird calls, and presents a human mimicking bird calls (exactly like modern ornithologist’s attempts to replicate bird calls). And, given that the debate actually takes place between a multitude of birds, to what extent are other species meant to understand ‘quek[s]’ and ‘kek[s]’ – can they translate too?
More profoundly, Chaucer’s bird call line, interrupting the human speech, invites us to bridge the communicative gap. It provokes a speculative translation act from us at this moment, a playful invitation to imagine what the birds mean (or perhaps fail to mean) amongst their own and other species. From this angle, the lively vernacular of the goose and duck at other times conducted in English (‘All this is not worth a fly!’; ‘Come off!’) is an attempt to translate this otherness of bird species, and that of all nature’s voices. As a modern ornithologist states in a recent article on birdsong, ‘We will probably never be able to talk to birds, but we may yet be able to know what they are saying’ (David Callahan, Birdwatch, May 2016). Chaucer might have been dubious about such confidence, but I think he’d be happy to admit that ‘queck’ is far from meaningless.