“When you start losing things, you become more interested in them, more affectionate, more protective.” David Attenborough, host of Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day for the month of May, is expanding on why the British seem to care more about wildlife generally, and birds in particular, than any other nation.
“If it’s around you all the time, you tend to take it for granted. But I think British people care more about the natural world because the Industrial Revolution started here. We’ve been losing countryside for longer than anyone else.”
For those slugabeds who’ve yet to catch it, Tweet of the Day is a 90-second programme broadcast just before the Today programme (with a repeat tweet on Sundays) with each instalment introducing a different bird via a sample of its song and accompanying factual titbits. Each month will feature a different presenter and 265 birds in total will be covered before the series has run its course (all available in perpetuity on the Radio 4 website for those who don’t rise with the dawn chorus).
“You can’t say a bird sings because it enjoys it,” says Attenborough, “but there’s a very good reason to suppose that many female birds prefer good singers to bad singers; that is, singers of elaborate songs rather than singers of simple ones. The nightingale has this complex song because he’s competing with his peers through song. The males arrive early in the spring and the females arrive a week or so later and they fly over the woods while listening to the birdsong until they think, ‘That bloke sounds like Plácido Domingo, I must have a better listen.’”
The series promises to flit between the most common garden birds (there are tales of sparrows nesting 640m below ground in a Yorkshire coal mine) and the rarest of visitors; the only criterion for inclusion being that there must be audio recording captured somewhere in the UK.
Falling very much into the latter category is a black-browed albatross first seen in Scotland in 1967, 10,000 miles from its Antarctic home, at the start of what was to become a fruitless 40-year search for a mate. The bird – who came to be known as Albert Ross – was last sighted in Shetland in 1995 and presumed dead (albatrosses can live up to 70 years) but reappeared a few years later in Sula Sgeir in the Outer Hebrides, and was last seen there in 2007, still unsuccessfully attempting to attract female company in a colony of gannets.
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The cultural connections of birds will feature just as strongly as stories about their natural world. Shakespeare, for example, made over 600 references to over 60 birds in his works, including a mention of Richard II in Henry IV, Part 1 that would make a perfect barb on Prime Minister’s Questions, when he’s likened to the cuckoo in June, “Heard, not regarded.”
In Attenborough’s tenure as host the programme will return to the same bird – in this week’s case the nightingale – because it has too much of a back story to cover in one programme. The bird featured in what’s believed to be the BBC’s first outside broadcast when, in 1923, Lord Reith was persuaded to record the cellist Beatrice Harrison playing in her garden, accompanied by nightingales. These live nightingale recordings became an annual event and the subject of BBC legend: in May 1942, the plug was pulled when Wellington and Lancaster bombers on a mission to Germany could be heard in the background, leading to fears that this could give vital information about their position to any listening spies.
The BBC archives will not be the only source, as the private collections of sound recordists Chris Watson, Geoff Sample and Gary Moore will also be plundered, with all three commissioned to make fresh recordings. (Moore is currently trying to capture the great crested grebe’s mating ritual, with the help of a remote-controlled duck.) Having worked with Watson on a recording of the dawn chorus for his 1998 series The Life of Birds, Sir David knows the breed well. “The recordist is the bloke who gets up three hours before dawn when you’ve been up half the night anyway and goes out again,” he laughs. “The natural history birdsong recordist is a very dedicated chap.”
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From Shakespearean allusions to “temple-haunting martlets” to the ancient Greeks’ belief that nesting kingfishers could calm the seas giving us the phrase “halcyon [the Greek for kingfisher] days”, the series promises to be a rich source of inspiration for our avian obsession, which, as far as Attenborough is concerned, is entirely healthy. “I think watching birds is hugely therapeutic,” he says. “There’s a great solace in watching birds and the reappearance of birds and the measuring of the seasons by birds. Of that I’m quite sure.”
Tweet of the Day is on Monday-Friday at 5:58am on Radio 4. You can listen to the featured birds at bbc.co.uk/radio4 – click on the Tweet of the Day link
How familiar are you with British birdsong? Go to radiotimes.com/birdsong to see if you can identify five of the most distinctive
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