In the three years we’ve lived here, we’ve seen many, many different birds come and go – from tits and sparrows, to starlings and redwings – and I vividly remember being welcomed by a wren, nesting in the front garden hedges, when we first came to view the house. We’ve even had a pair of lesser-spotted woodpeckers help demolish the fencing that will be replaced in the next few weeks; and a brace of blackcaps desperately nibbling at the fat-balls, in the snow.
However, although it is a common sight around here – and many have passed us by, on their way to somewhere completely different – we have yet to witness chaffinches take up residence nearby. Over the past couple of weeks, though (coinciding with my first car detailing of the year: meaning that I had a running critique of my five-hour wash-dry-polish-and-wax marathon), a male chaffinch has launched into his courting call: singing for a disproportionate amount of the day in the top of our bare-but-budding oak tree, with a wonderful range of what can only be described as cheerful, falling melodies, and accelerating rhythms. It seems amazing that something which only weighs around an ounce can compete with the noise level of passing cars (75 to 78 dB, measured at our front door…)!
I remember my grandad telling me that this trilling accelerando was likened to the quickening steps of a bowler’s run-up (my dad was a cunning proponent of the leg break…): and research confirms this – the best transliterations being “chip-chip-chip-tell-tell-cherry-erry-erry-tissi-cheweeo” and “chink-chink-chink-tee-tee-tee-terree-erree-erree-chissee-CHU-EE-OO”: as the ball flies at speed towards the unwitting batsman. (There is no subsequent toppling of stumps, however, to follow this tremendous trisyllabic flourish – even though the pace is akin to Jeff Thompson’s!) If you’re not an aging cricket aficionado, there is a more poetic rendition in William Allingham’s The Lover and the Birds – “Sweet, sweet, sweet!/Pretty lovey, come and meet me here!”
Occasionally, our chaffinch will change his refrain, or swap perches, in response to competing green- and goldfinches (now both paired up), as well as a typically aggressive robin – sometimes losing that last “oo”; or rushing towards it, with a shorter approach – once or twice, apparently, even being driven away (in typical, tumbling flight) by these challenges (or, more likely, heading off to replenish his energy at one of the plentiful nearby feeders). However, even though it is a song of desire – a true chanson d’amour – the tiny passerine seems happy to keep repeating it, sometimes adding a little flourish to his usual trills, and throwing its head back with (anthropomorphic) joy. Not even the drone of Shenington Glider Club’s flat-four-engined T61 Motor Glider upsets or interrupts what is obviously a hormonally-driven vocation.
In the past few days, he’s widened his arena: sometimes singing from the apple tree, behind the house; as well as from our rooftop – and I fear it won’t be long before he’s found a mate (especially as an apparently disinterested female has appeared); and his song no longer welcomes me, as I venture outdoors. However, as spring now seems firmly to be bedding in, his alla cappella serenade is rapidly becoming a concerto: backed by a growing orchestra of other avian minstrels intent on filling the air with their eager desiderative commotion.