Did he do it, did he do it, Judy did : bird song recognition with S. Vere Benson

To continue with the educational theme, no doubt many of you, as you stroll our highways and bye-ways, have been entranced by birdsong, but have not, perhaps, felt confident about identifying the species responsible for these glorious outpourings.  Well, help is at hand, with the aid of S. Vere Benson, Hon. Sec. of the Bird-Lovers’ League, and author of the 1937 edition of The Observer’s Book of Birds.

S. (her name seems to have been Stephana, though she never permitted this degree of familiarity on her title-pages) was moved to found the Bird Lovers’  League (according to Frances, Countess of Warwick – “famous for her kindness” – in her foreword) in the following circumstances –

“The Misses Benson are no ordinary persons.  Whilst living in Cornwall they saw some village children ill-treating in a horrible way some fledgling birds.  This so distressed them that they decided to form a little Bird-Lovers’ League amongst their friends and neighbours.” 

She held – for her time – advanced views about the treatment of birds –

“I think I shall not be offending anybody when I say that no true naturalist shoots a rare bird when discovered …”

– obvious to us today, perhaps, but less so at the time.  Much as she loved birds, she did not hesitate to allow a note of asperity into her voice when she felt that a British Bird had been letting the side down –

“Actually the character of the bird [the cuckoo]  is not admirable” or “Unlike the rest of its family, its character is as white as its plumage is black” (the chough).

Her real genius though, I think, lay in her talent for vivid description of  the calls (or “notes”, as she puts it) of our birds and I intend, with your permission, to share some of them with you over the coming weeks.  So, to begin with, keep an ear out for these –

“A purring sound like a sewing-machine working” ………………………………….. Nightjar or Goatsucker

“A short cry, ‘pew'” …………………………………………………………………………….Sparrow-Hawk

“A high squeak, like a wheelbarrow with a rusty wheel” ……………………………Spotted Flycatcher

“A low ‘zup’ continuously repeated” ……………………………………………………..Long-tailed Tit

“A twanging ‘ping”” …………………………………………………………………………….Bearded Tit

“A very tiny, high-trilling song like the tinkling of a fairy bell” …………………..Goldcrest

“A plaintive weet” ……………………………………………………………………………..Redstart

“A rather quiet ‘chick’.  The song is too well known to need much description.  It sometimes resembles ‘Did he do it, did he do it, Judy did’ and ‘Come out, come out’ ……………………………………..Song-Thrush

“‘Pink’ and a questioning ‘weet'” ………………………………………………………….. Chaffinch

“An occasional double pipe ; but it is not a talkative bird” ………………………..Ruff

(Admittedly, some of our birds don’t seem to have made too much of an effort.  The best the Twite can manage is the rather unimaginative ‘Twite’ ;  the Knot can at least manage some note of variation with ‘Knot’ or ‘Knut’.)

And what of S. Vere Benson?  She seems, at some point, to have become Mrs. H.T. Hillier, but – apart from regular revisions of the Observer’s Book – to have stayed bibliographically silent until 1970, when she unexpectedly re-emerged with ‘Birds of Lebanon and the Jordan Area’

Perhaps she had been swept away by some Sheikh of Araby.

 

Weet? Weet?

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3 thoughts on “Did he do it, did he do it, Judy did : bird song recognition with S. Vere Benson

  1. Super article BW. I am, unsuprisingly, attracted to the description of the Nightjar. Mending will never be the same again.

    I seem to remember someone telling me that Wood Pigeons say “My toe bleeds Betty”. Also in The Famous Five, Julian remarked that some bird or other said “A little bit of bread and no cheese”. Anne probably.

  2. Thank you again, WH. The “Little bit of bread …” bird is the Yellow Bunting (or Yellow Hammer), though I must say I’ve never heard one say this myself.

    According to SVB, the note of the Wood Pigeon is “Tak’ two coos, Taffy ‘ tak’ two coos, Taffy, tak”. Odd how people hear these things differently.

  3. I shall enrol in a degree course in Anthropomorphic Avian Linguistics at the University of Old Sarum (or somesuch)and sort it out once and for all.

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