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The Secret of the Willow Wren

The willow wren is one of the commonest and undoubtedly the most generally diffused of the British songsters. A summer visitor, one of the earliest to arrive, usually appearing on the South Coast in the last week in March; a little later he may be met with in very nearly every wood, thicket, hedge, common, marsh, orchard, and large garden throughout the kingdom—it is hard to say, writes Seebohm, where he is not found. Wherever there are green perching-places, and small caterpillars, flies and aphides to feed upon, there you will see and hear the willow wren. He is a sweet and constant singer from the date of his arrival until about the middle of June, when he becomes silent for a season, resuming his song in July, and continuing it throughout August and even into September. This late summer singing is, however, fitful and weak and less joyous in character than in the spring. But in spite of his abundance and universality, and the charm of his little melody, he is not familiarly known to the people generally, as they know the robin redbreast, pied wagtail, dunnock, redstart, wheatear, and stonechat. The name we call him by is a very old one; it was first used in English by Ray, in his translation of Willughby's Ornithology, about three centuries ago; but it still remains a book-name unknown to the rustic. Nor has this common little bird any widely known vernacular name. If by chance you find a country-man who knows the bird, and has a name for it, this will be one which is applied indiscriminately to two, three, or four species. The willow wren, in fact, is one of those little birds that are "seen rather than distinguished," on account of its small size, modest colouring, and its close resemblance to other species of warblers; also on account of the quiet, gentle character of its song, which is little noticed in the spring and summer concert of loud, familiar voices.

One day in London during the late summer I was amused and at the same time a little disgusted at this general indifference to the delicate beauty in a bird-sound which distinguishes the willow wren even among such delicate singers as the warblers: it struck me as a kind of ęsthetic hardness of hearing. I heard the song in the flower walk, in Kensington Gardens, on a Sunday morning, and sat down to listen to it; and for half an hour the bird continued to repeat his song two or three times a minute on the trees and bushes within half a dozen yards of my seat. Just after I had sat down, a throstle, perched on the topmost bough of a thorn that projected over the walk, began his song, and continued it a long time, heedless of the people passing below. Now, I noticed that in almost every case the person approaching lifted his eyes to the bird above, apparently admiring the music, sometimes even pausing for a moment in his walk; and that when two or three came together they not only looked up, but made some remark about the beauty of the song. But from first to last not one of all the passers-by cast a look towards the tree where the willow wren was singing; nor was there anything to show that the sound had any attraction for them, although they must have heard it. The loudness of the thrush prevented them from giving it any attention, and made it practically inaudible. It was like a pimpernel blossoming by the side of a poppy, or dahlia, or peony, where, even if seen, it would not be noticed as a beautiful flower.

In the chapter on the wood wren, I endeavoured to trace to its source the pleasurable feelings which the song of that bird produces in me and in many others—a charm exceeding that of many more celebrated vocalists. In that chapter the song of the willow wren was mentioned incidentally. Now, these two—wood wren and willow wren—albeit nearly related, are, in the character of their notes, as widely different as it is possible for two songsters to be; and when we listen attentively to both, we recognise that the feeling produced in us differs in each case—that it has a different cause. In the case of the willow wren it might be said off-hand that our pleasure is simply due to the fact that it is a melodious sound, associated in our minds with summer scenes. As much could be said of any other migrant's song—nightingale, tree-pipit, blackcap, garden warbler, swallow, and a dozen more. But it does not explain the individual and very special charm of this particular bird—what I have ventured to call the secret of the willow wren. After all, it is not a deeply hidden secret, and has indeed been half guessed or hinted by various writers on bird melody; and as it also happens to be the secret of other singers besides the willow wren, we may, I think, find in it an explanation of the fact that the best singers do not invariably please us so well as some that are considered inferior.

The song of the willow wren has been called singular and unique among our birds; and Mr Warde Fowler, who has best described it, says that it forms an almost perfect cadence, and adds, "by which I mean that it descends gradually, not, of course, on the notes of our musical scale, by which no birds in their natural state would deign to be fettered, but through fractions of one or perhaps two of our tones, and without returning upward at the end." Now, this arrangement of its notes, although very rare and beautiful, does not give the little song its highest ęsthetic value. The secret of the charm, I imagine, is traceable to the fact that there is distinctly something human-like in the quality of the voice, its timbre. Many years ago an observer of wild birds and listener to their songs came to this country, and walking one day in a London suburb he heard a small bird singing among the trees. The trees were in an enclosure and he could not see the bird, but there would, he thought, be no difficulty in ascertaining the species, since it would only be necessary to describe its peculiar little song to his friends and they would tell him. Accordingly, on his return to the house he proceeded to describe the song and ask the name of the singer. No one could tell him, and much to his surprise, his account of the melody was received with smiles of amusement and incredulity. He described it as a song that was like a wonderfully bright and delicate human voice talking or laughingly saying something rather than singing. It was not until some time afterwards that the bird-lover in a strange land discovered that his little talker and laugher among the leaves was the willow wren. In vain he had turned to the ornithological works; the song he had heard, or at all events the song as he had heard it, was not described therein; and yet to this day he cannot hear it differently—cannot dissociate the sound from the idea of a fairy-like child with an exquisitely pure, bright, spiritual voice laughingly speaking in some green place.

And yet Gilbert White over a century ago had noted the human quality in the willow wren's voice when he described it as an "easy, joyous, laughing note." It is still better to be able to quote Mr Warde Fowler, when writing in A Year with the Birds, on the futile attempts which are often made to represent birds' songs by means of our notation, since birds are guided in their songs by no regular succession of intervals. Speaking of the willow wren in this connection, he adds: "Strange as it may seem, the songs of birds may perhaps be more justly compared with the human voice when speaking, than with a musical instrument, or with the human voice when singing." The truth of this observation must strike any person who will pay close attention to the singing of birds; but there are two criticisms to be made on it. One is that the resemblance of a bird's song to a human voice when speaking is confined to some or to a few species; the second is that it is a mistake to think, as Mr Fowler appears to do, that the resemblance is wholly or mainly due to the fact that the bird's voice is free when singing—that, like the human voice in talking, it is not tied to tones and semitones. For instance, we note this peculiarity in the willow wren, but not in, say, the wren and chaffinch, although the songs of these two are just as free, just as independent of regular intervals as our voices when speaking and laughing. The resemblance in a bird's song to human speech is entirely due to the human-like quality in the voice; for we find that other songsters—notably the swallow—have a charm similar to that of the willow wren, although the notes of the former bird are differently arranged, and do not form anything like a cadence. Again, take the case of the blackbird. We are accustomed to describe the blackbird's voice as flute-like, and the flute is one of the instruments which most nearly resemble the human voice. Now, on account of the leisurely manner in which the blackbird gives out his notes, the resemblance to human speech is not so pronounced as in the case of the willow wren or swallow; but when two or three or half a dozen blackbirds are heard singing close together, as we sometimes hear them in woods and orchards where they are abundant, the effect is singularly beautiful, and gives the idea of a conversation being carried on by a set of human beings of arboreal habits (not monkeys) with glorified voices. Listening to these blackbird concerts, I have sometimes wondered whether or not they produced the same effect on others' ears as on mine, as of people talking to one another in high-pitched and beautiful tones. Oddly enough, it was only while writing this chapter that I by chance found an affirmative answer to my question. Glancing through Leslie's Riverside Letters, which I had not previously seen, I came upon the following remarks, quoted from Sir George Grove, in a letter to the author, on the blackbird's singing: "He selects a spot where he is within hearing of a comrade, and then he begins quite at leisure (not all in a hurry like the thrush) a regular conversation. 'And how are you? Isn't this a fine day? Let us have a nice talk,' etc., etc. He is answered in the same strain, and then replies, and so on. Nothing more thoughtful, more refined, more feeling, can be conceived." In another passage he writes: "I love them (the robins), but they fill a much smaller part than the blackbird does in my heart. To hear the blackbird talking to his mate a field off, with deliberate, refined conversation, the very acme of grace and courtesy, is perfectly splendid."

There are two more common British songsters that produce much the same effect as the willow wren and blackbird; these are the swallow and pied wagtail. They are not in the first rank as melodists, and I can find no explanation of the fact that they please me better than the great singers other than their more human-like tones, which to my hearing have something of an exceedingly beautiful contralto sound. The swallow's song is familiar to every one, but that of the wagtail is not well known. The bird has two distinct songs: one, heard oftenest in early spring, consists of a low rambling warble, with some resemblance to the whinchat's song; it is the second song, heard occasionally until late June, frequently uttered on the wing—a torrent of loud, rapidly uttered, and somewhat swallow-like notes—that comes nearest in tone to the human voice, and has the greatest charm.

After these, we find other songsters with one or two notes, or a phrase, human-like in quality, in their songs. Of these I will only mention the blackcap, linnet, and tree-pipit. The most beautiful of the blackcap's notes, which come nearest to the blackbird, have this human sound; and certainly the most beautiful part of the linnet's song is the opening phrase, composed of notes that are both swallow-like and human-like.

It may appear strange to some readers that I put the tree-pipit, with his thin, shrill, canary-like pipe, in this list; but his notes are not all of this character; he is moreover a most variable singer; and it happens that in some individuals the concluding notes of the song have more of that peculiar human quality than any other British songster. No doubt it was a bird in which these human-like, languishing notes at the close of the song were very full and beautiful that inspired Burns to write his "Address to a Wood-lark." The tree pipit is often called by that name in Scotland, where the true wood-lark is not found.


O stay, sweet warbling wood-lark, stay,
Nor quit for me the trembling spray,
A hopeless lover courts thy lay,
    Thy soothing, fond complaining.

Again, again that tender part,
That I may catch thy melting art;
For surely that would touch her heart
    Who kills me wi' disdaining.

Say, was thy little mate unkind,
And heard thee as the passing wind?
O nocht but love and sorrow joined
    Sic notes o' wae could waken!

Thou tells o' never-ceasing care,
O' speechless grief and dark despair;
For pity's sake, sweet bird, nae mair,
    Or my poor heart is broken!


Much more could be said about these and other species in the passerine order that have some resemblance, distinct or faint, to the human voice in their singing notes—an echo, as it were, of our own common emotions, in most cases simply glad or joyous, but sometimes, as in the case of the tree-pipit, of another character. And even those species that are furthest removed from us in the character of the sounds they emit have some notes that suggest a highly brightened human voice. Witness the throstle and nightingale. The last approaches to the human voice in that rich, musical throb, repeated many times with passion, which is the invariable prelude to his song; and again, in that "one low piping note, more sweet than all," four times repeated in a wonderfully beautiful crescendo. Who that ever listened to Carlotta Patti does not remember sounds like these from her lips? It was commonly said of her that her voice was bird-like; certainly it was clarified and brightened beyond other voices—in some of her notes almost beyond recognition as a human voice. It was a voice that had a great deal of the quality of gladness in it, but less depth of human passion than other great singers. Still, it was a human voice; and, just as Carlotta Patti (outshining the best of her sister-singers even as the diamond outsparkles all other gems) rose to the birds in her miraculous flights, so do some of the birds come down to and resemble us in their songs.

If I am right in thinking that it is the human note in the voices of some passerine birds that gives a peculiar and very great charm to their songs, so that an inferior singer shall please us more than one that ranks high, according to the accepted standard, it remains to ask why it should be so. Why, I mean, should the mere likeness to a human tone in a little singing-bird impart so great a pleasure to the mind, when the undoubtedly human-like voices of many non-passerine species do not as a rule affect us in the same way? As a matter of fact, we find in the multitude of species that resemble us in their voices a few, outside of the order of singers, that do give us a pleasure similar to that imparted by the willow wren, swallow, and tree-pipit. Thus, among British birds we have the wood-pigeon, and the stock-dove; the green woodpecker, with his laugh-like cry; the cuckoo, a universal favourite on account of his double fluty call; and (to those who are not inclined to be superstitious) the wood-owl, a most musical night-singer; and the curlew, with, in a less degree, various other shore birds. But in a majority of the larger birds of all orders the effect produced is different, and often the reverse of pleasant. Or if such sounds delight us, the feeling differs in character from that produced by the melodious singer, and is mainly due to that wildness with which we are in sympathy expressed by such sounds. Human-like voices are found among the auks, loons, and grebes; eagles and falcons; cuckoos, pigeons, goatsuckers, owls, crows, rails, ducks, waders, and gallinaceous birds. The cries and shrieks of some among these, particularly when heard in the dark hours, in deep woods and marshes and other solitary places, profoundly impress and even startle the mind, and have given rise all the world over to numberless superstitious beliefs. Such sounds are supposed to proceed from devils, or from demons inhabiting woods and waters and all desert places; from night-wandering witches; spirits sent to prophesy death or disaster; ghosts of dead men and women wandering by night about the world in search of a way out of it; and sometimes human beings who, burdened with dreadful crimes or irremediable griefs, have been changed into birds. The three British species best known on account of their supernatural character have very remarkable voices with a human sound in them: the raven with his angry, barking cry, and deep, solemn croak; the booming bittern; and the white or church owl, with his funereal screech.

It is, I think, plain that the various sensations excited in us by the cries, moans, screams, and the more or less musical notes of different species, are due to the human emotions which they express or seem to express. If the voice simulates that of a maniac, or of a being tortured in body or mind, or overcome with grief, or maddened with terror, the blood-curdling and other sensations proper to the occasion will be experienced; only, if we are familiar with the sound or know its cause, the sensation will be weak. Similarly, if in some deep, silent wood we are suddenly startled by a loud human whistle or shouted "Hi!" although we may know that a bird, somewhere in that waste of foliage around us, uttered the shout, we yet cannot help experiencing the feelings—a combination of curiosity, amusement, and irritation—which we should have if some friend or some human being had hailed us while purposely keeping out of sight. Finally, if the bird-sounds resemble refined, bright, and highly musical human voices, the voices, let us say, of young girls in conversation, expressive of various beautiful qualities—sympathy, tenderness, innocent mirth, and overflowing gladness of heart—the effect will be in the highest degree delightful.

Herbert Spencer, in his account of the origin of our love of music in his Psychology, writes: "While the tones of anger and authority are harsh and coarse, the tones of sympathy and refinement are relatively gentle and of agreeable timbre. That is to say, the timbre is associated in experience with the receipt of gratification, has acquired a pleasure-giving quality, and consequently the tones which in music have an allied timbre become pleasure-giving and are called beautiful. Not that this is the sole cause of their pleasure-giving quality.... Still, in recalling the tones of instruments which approach the tones of the human voice, and observing that they seem beautiful in proportion to their approach, we see that this secondary ęsthetic element is important."

As with instruments, so it is with bird voices; in proportion as they approach the tones of the human voice, expressive of sympathy, refinement, and other beautiful qualities, they will seem beautiful—in some cases even more beautiful than those which, however high they may rank in other ways, are yet without this secondary ęsthetic element.

W. H. Hudson