Some bird songs and calls are so evocative of particular seasons and places for me. This has been my route into learning to recognize their songs.
My inner city childhood was played out with a soundtrack of chirruping sparrows, and, even now, when they have become quite a rarity, if I hear a sparrow I am right back there. I am right there, crawling on dirty knees in the yard, lost in a world of model cars and huge set-piece battles.
Blackbirds sang languorously on the house roofs in the spring and early summer. The slow, varied song of the blackbird, with each unhurried silence lasting the time of the preceding musical phrase, is the harbinger of warm evenings and slow sunsets. It was an accompaniment to Wimbledon, which I seemed to win every year, and to cricket, which was my summer passion.
Then, each summer would come the swifts from southern Africa. Their screaming flight call explains why they were called “Devil Birds”, and their life spent almost entirely on the wing (including sex and sleeping!) made them strangely magical. They are the Platonic Ideal of the concept of bird-ness. Their numbers are declining, but we still exclaim “The swifts are back!” when we hear them, screaming up the valley.
These birds I didn’t have to learn. They are just woven into my childhood. The same is true of skylarks above the bracken of Charnwood Forest, or the jackdaws chacking in old ruins or even older oak trees. Jackdaws mean quarries and churches and castles. They are social birds, and will mob the dog if there is a young bird on the ground, or mob a hawk that is flying too close to the nests.
As my sight fades, these memories become stronger.
After a winter of sad robins and somewhat strident Great Tits, I am breathlessly awaiting the returning migrants: the flittering swallows and the dowdy warblers. Warblers are notoriously difficult to distinguish by sight, but the blind listener has no problem, because their songs are quite different.
The curlew means open moorland. It is the bird of wide spaces and big skies. Its rolling call means hot days high up with a dog and a chocolate bar, the tiredness of contentment.
Herring Gulls were always perched on chimneys at the seaside. They are the sound of holidays and gritty sand and sun-kissed skin and fish-and-chips eaten outside in the sound of breakers.
These are all birds whose songs I knew before I knew that I knew them. You will have your list, and this is where you start, when you listen to birds with awareness of the non-human world around us.
Bit by bit, walk by walk, season by season, you will learn to distinguish a mistle thrush from a blackbird, a wood warbler from a garden warbler, a jackdaw from a crow. You will learn to distinguish between love songs and alarm calls.
All this will come in time, and, after all, what’s the rush? You have a lifetime.