The following piece was one of many I wrote for the weekly column, Column Eight. The pieces appeared in the Dunedin Star Midweeker in the early 1990s. I've edited it very slightly; there were also a couple of typos in the printed version. A now-deceased friend, Gaynor Smith, had cut it out of the paper and kept it with a host of other material. Her sister found it while going through Gaynor's multitude of papers.
Nobody Birds ˗ Column Eight ˗ November 8 1995
On one of several mornings lately when I haven’t been able to sleep through until a civilised hour, I got up and went for a walk. The day was overcast, the sun barely pinking the clouds. The cool air kept my hands in my pockets.
After wending my way round streets familiar to me through all my born days, I came across a blackbird sitting on a garage roof, singing his heart out.
I’d been aware of the birds all around me waking the day with their singing. I couldn’t help being aware of it, just as at night, if I happen to be in the Octagon or the Queens Gardens as the sun’s going down, I can’t help but notice thousands of sparrows setting themselves for the night by shouting and chattering all at once.
It’s as if they’re trying to hold back sleep ˗ or night ˗ like tired and boisterous children unwilling to go to bed, wearing their parents out with their caterwauling.
It’s easy to think that it’s only out in the open, in the country, that you really hear birds singing.
I remember lying in bed one morning in a place on Banks Peninsula, listening to a bellbird (so I called it, though it may not have been). Time after time he dropped his perfectly-formed notes into the still air, with the regularity of a tap dripping into a bath.
That morning is a glorious moment fixed in my memory.
But this blackbird, this particular morning, was a bird of a different feather ˗ of course. Not for him the hypnotically-repeated, fragrant full-formed notes.
No, he sat there and opened his throat, like a jazz singer in full flight, and the only consistent thing about his song was the regular pause between phrases when he took, I guess, a necessary breath.
He soared up and down the scales, he trilled, he twittered, he laughed, he sang a moment of beauty and topped it off with a scratch across a blackboard. He gave little screams interspersed with fragments from his favourite operas. He choked notes in mid-stream, and coughed. He threw music off the top of his head and caught it again, gave it a shake and a rattle and a roll, and turned it into a thing of beauty forever. He was an avian coloratura.
Across the road, oscillating on an electric wire, was another blackbird. He was doing some trapeze work with his song, swinging it back and forth in a much more regular pattern. Down the road another bird kept hitting his top note and sliding down the scale on a toboggan.
The French composer, Olivier Messiaen, spent a life-time recording bird songs and turning them, unaltered, into compositions for the piano and orchestra. (Personally, I think they lose something in the transition, though the attempt is admirable.)
But I think Messiaen would have found it impossible to capture the wonder of this plain old blackbird’s song. I could only stand in awe as this minuscule scrap of creation gave forth praise to his Creator.
We’ve had a cockatiel in our house for many years. He’s lost whatever little bit of English he could speak, and he’s decided that chattering and squawking is sufficient to make his needs known. (Though he likes to join in when human singers come for a practice.)
Once in a blue moon, however, our cockatiel allows us to hear what he can really do with his voice. He opens his throat and puts Ella Fitzgerald to shame. Then with a casual cough he settles down and becomes just a nobody-cockatiel again.
Thinking entrepreneurially, I could see our cockatiel and that morning blackbird making a great duo. Borrowing a little, maybe, they could call themselves Bee Bee and Cee Cee Tee Winans, or the Daytime Nightingales, or even, Birds Blow the Whistle.