Can birdsong heal the soul? One writer thought so.


Hudson had 240 bird calls in his mind.

We know about W.H. Hudson‘s adventures in the jungles of South America – Stanford discussed them during its Another Look evening on the author’s Green Mansions. I remember the prominence of exotic birdsong in the featured novel.

But who would have guessed that birdsong would be the very thing that we would need two years later, facing a global pandemic? On my daily walks, I’ve suddenly become aware of the birds around us, and especially their chirping and trilling and singing that gives me a momentary thrill, a sense of  a wilder world coexisting with the desk-bound life I live.

“To sit and listen to any birdsong is to meditate on the wildness of birds,” Jason Wilson writes in the current issue of Britain’s StandpointAlthough Hudson was reared in Argentina, he spent a number of winters cooped up in Paddington with his wife, an opera singer and his former landlady. Paddington took a toll on his spirits, as it has for many others. What restored him? Birdsong, in part. “Hudson teaches us that bird song is a medicine that restores freedom and wildness to our minds,” Wilson writes.

An excerpt:

In one of its essays on sparrows, which for Hudson stood for wild nature in an urban wasteland, he wrote, “it is always possible to find something fresh to say of a bird of so versatile a mind”. When I first read this, I was surprised not only by that word “fresh” but by the notion that a sparrow has a “mind”. Hudson praises this humble little bird for “its greater intelligence” and “individual character”. He found that, despite their ubiquity, “the individual sparrow is little known to us”. Here was Hudson looking at a common bird as if for the first time.

“A bird of so versatile a mind…” (Photo: Thorsten Denhard)

He was especially interested in the gatherings of the birds that Londoners then called “a sparrows’ chapel”. They congregate in a tree or hedge after a rain shower or at sunset and “their chorus of ringing chirruping sounds has an exceedingly pleasant effect; for although compared with the warblers’ singing it may be a somewhat rude music, by contrast with the noise of traffic and raucous cries from human throats it is very bright and glad and even beautiful, voicing a wild, happy life”.

All passerines—the order includes more than half of the different species of birds—have a habit of concert singing at sunset and expressing that “overflowing” of life that Hudson sought. There is no need to hanker for the exotic—the common birds around you can provide the thrill of untamed wilderness. Hudson suggests that really listening is to escape your worrying mind by concentrating on the emotion you feel when a bird sings. It is to range beyond yourself and self-absorption. When he was writing about the birds he knew as a young man in Argentina, he could hear over 240 bird calls in his mind. Bird music seemed lodged in a different area of his brain. Each time he heard a bird sing, it renewed his store of primitive bird song.

He described a starling’s song thus: “the airy whistle, the various chirp, the clink-clink as of a cracked bell, the low chatter of mixed harsh and musical sounds, the kissing and finger-cracking and those long metallic notes”. He said that however familiar one may be with the starlings, “you cannot listen to one of their choirs without hearing some new sound”. I have listened carefully to the rich variety of sounds they make and it is as if the songs of ten birds come out of a single throat.

Read the whole article here.  It’s delightful. And read our previous post on starlings here. (And by the way, while looking for a photo of a sparrow, I found this rather remarkable story about one.)

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2 Responses to “Can birdsong heal the soul? One writer thought so.”

  1. George Says:

    In one of his books of essays, Ford Madox Ford gives some pages to Hudson. He writes that at one point he kept a number of birds to soothe his nerves. Hudson did not approve of keeping birds, but advised (as I recall) Ford to set out mirrors to make the birds think they had more space. I can’t find this book on-line, though has some of it. The essay there illustrates the difficulty of trusting Ford’s details: in the version I read on paper, the person recounting the glories of Sussex was Hilaire Belloc.

  2. George Says:

    For “has some of it” read “has an essay with some of the same material”.