Spring Fever

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One of my favourite things about the onset of spring is the—

wait sorry heard a goldcrest back in a minute

ok couldn’t find it – saw a robin though

As I was saying, one of the very best things about this time of year is that I can sit with—

hang on there it is again don’t go away

elusive sod now where was i ah yes

As spring approaches, the sap rising and birds clearing their syrinxes before the full onslaught of the breeding season, I like to sit with my window open and listen—

so sorry it’s back and i just have to… please bear with me i’ll be back as soon as i can won’t take long

right the trouble is that the conifer’s pretty big and the goldcrest’s very very small. did you know they only weigh as much as a 10p piece? currency seems to be the standard unit for weighing birds, but only with small birds, so i’m here to tell you that a white stork weighs the same as 4,639 £10 notes. right where the bloody hell was i ah yes spring

The gentle soughing of the wind in the branches, the soft coo of the woodpigeon – the trees coming into leaf like something almost being said (not mine, that – Larkin.) The rising of the… no hold on, done that… umm… something about… sweet singing… no hang on that’s not right at all.

see the trouble is i get distracted. i had a whole thing lined up about the joys of spring and it was really good but i can hear the goldcrest outside and i can’t concentrate until i’ve seen it… don’t ask me why… i mean you’d think hearing it would be enough and it kind of is, but i shan’t rest until i’ve seen it fossicking around in the spruce, caught a glimpse of that quizzical look – somehow more vulnerable than its cousin the firecrest, which, probably because of its eye-stripe, in contrast to the goldcrest’s more open face, has a sort of sleek leanness to it, a kind of cunning – what the italians call ‘furbo’, which is one of those words that doesn’t translate all that well, and I’m not even sure it’s the word i want and now i’ve got sidetracked again.

look, if it’s all the same with you i’m just going to go out and record the song. maybe it’ll pop out while i’m doing it and then i can get on with this thing. backson.

ok have a listen to this.

that first song? the sratospheric tsee-ba-da-tsee-ba-da-tsee-ba-da-tsee-ba-da-scabba-diddle-oo? that’s your goldcrest. then there’s a robin. then a car, and then they sing together but you mostly hear the robin and just the scabba-diddle-oo of the goldcrest at the end.

but the point is, i didn’t know that two years ago. i didn’t even recognise the robin. but then i started listening and delving and exploring and then listening some more, and now i’m ok. not great, especially with all those little beggars that go ‘tseep’ or ‘tseeep’ or ‘tsep’ or ‘tsee’ or… well, you get the idea. and anything new takes a while to bed in so i’m really confident identifying it. it’s something to do with timbre i think – and the shape of the song – and the gaps – birds have an innate understanding of the importance of silence, it seems. the mistake i made early on in the process was thinking that all robins, for example, would sound exactly the same as the one on the recording, but it’s not like that at all.

anyway, it doesn’t really matter if you can identify them or not – it’s all about waking up to it, opening your ears to that sound world, and honestly it changes your life, because no matter what else you have or don’t have, you’ll always have that, and it’s completely free and available to anyone with the will to find it. you think i’m joking but try it.

here’s a thing you can do. this spring, get out there early in the morning, find a place where there are as many trees and as little background noise as possible, and drink it all in. you don’t have to know what all the birds are – just allow it to seep into your soul. it can only do you good. now where was I oh yes the goldcrest.

It’s not a romantic bird, the goldcrest. Poems haven’t been written about it, not even by Ted Hughes. This is strange, and a situation that needs to be redressed as soon as possible.

O little Goldcrest
You have such a bold crest

Ok, maybe not. But the point remains. It’s an entirely arresting bird, the smallest in Europe, with a body several shades of greeny-olive and olivey-green, fantastic little wingbars, and that blazing stripe on its crown that gives it its name. Its scientific name is great, too: Regulus regulus, (kinglet kinglet). It not only makes me think of gas ovens from the 1960s, but is also a tautonym – a species name consisting of two identical words. I’m just going to leave a few more examples here, because I like them. Feel free to skip. (Or, for a more complete list, go here)

Mammals: Bison bison (American bison), Chinchilla chinchilla (short-tailed chinchilla), Gerbillus gerbillus (lesser Egyptian gerbil), Rattus rattus (black rat).

And from the avian world: Alle alle (little auk, often seen by the side of the road cheering on the riders at the Tour de France), Apus apus (common swift, literally ‘no foot no foot’), Coccothraustes coccothraustes (hawfinch), Crex crex (corncrake), Grus grus (common crane), Indicator indicator (greater honeyguide – insert your own driving instructor joke here), Pica pica (magpie), Puffinus puffinus (HA! You fell into my trap! This is NOT the puffin! It’s the Manx shearwater. I need to get out more), Troglodytes troglodytes (wren) and finally Vanellus vanellus (lapwing).

I find all this immensely pleasing.

i think i saw it. i took a few seconds away from the screen, looked out of the window, and saw a branch wiggle. and again. right. see you in a bit.

false alarm. little bastard’s buggered off again. saw a nice blackbird though – now there’s a song to lift the heart, if i had to choose between that and a nightingale, i know which i’d have – and a woodpigeon flobbing around the lawn hoovering everything up. the sound of my childhood, the woodpigeon.

Here’s a thing you can do.

Take your hands and cup them together, leaving a small aperture between your thumbs that you can bring up to your mouth. Experiment with blowing into the aperture, adjusting the various angles and therefore the resonance of the little hollow formed by your hands, until you’re able to produce a note. It will sound almost entirely unlike the song of a woodpigeon, but just enough like it for you to think ‘Hey! I can impersonate a woodpigeon!’

At least, that’s what you’ll think if you’re me at the age of ten. It was the one bird sound I could make, and I used to wander around the garden trying it out, listening to the lilting ‘hoo-hoooo hoooo hoo-hoooo’ of those ubiquitous and underrated birds and trying to emulate it.

‘Hoo-pffff hoooo pff-pffff.’

It’s all about getting the resonance right. I was good at it back then, but it eludes me now. Perhaps my hands are too grown-up.

seen it again. bye.

i hate birds.

Here’s a thing you can do.

Get your biggest headphones. Yes, the big fat ones that look as if they’re made for an elephant.

Download a recording of birdsong. (These CDs are good, but there are loads of resources available, and if you have time on your hands, visit this amazing site and feast your ears.)

Find a crowded train, the kind that would in normal circumstances inflict enough stress to make your head explode.


Turn up birdsong.

Find yourself disappearing into the sound.

Note the bewildered glances of your fellow commuters. ‘Who is this stranger, smiling so mysteriously and contentedly? What is their secret? What are they listening to? Mozart?

Stevie Wonder?

Ed Sheeran?

Thomas Tallis?’

Smile enigmatically and go about your day.

Works for me every time.

there you are again you trembling branch right this time i’m going to get you you little bugger


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Thanks for reading. I do urge you to listen to birdsong this spring – it’s genuinely transformative. To encourage you in this endeavour, I have some birdsong-related things to give away:

  • British Bird Sounds on CD
  • DVD guide to British Birdsong
  • Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed by Simon Barnes

The giveaway runs till midnight on March 25th. You can enter here.

Like this? Want more? Subscribe to my newsletter.


  1. My favourite hearing of a goldcrest, and yes it took us ages to spot the little bugger, was in the middle of Nottingham city centre. He was up in a tree, outside Clarks shoeshop and down the way from Brian Clough’s statue. Which somehow seemed appropriate, the loudest voice in Nottingham silenced by the smallest bird.

  2. Surely you can compose a Goldcrest symphony? 🙂

    But, Judith Wright’s poem Magpies

    Gymnorhina tibicen, Australian Magpie

    Along the road the magpies walk
    with hands in pockets, left and right.
    They tilt their heads, and stroll and talk.
    In their well-fitted black and white

    they look like certain gentlemen who seem most nonchalant and wise
    until their meal is served – and then
    what clashing beaks, what greedy eyes!

    But not one man that I have heard
    throws back his head in such a song
    of grace and praise – no man nor bird.
    Their greed is brief; their joy is long.
    For each is born with such a throat
    as thanks his God with every note.

  3. Ahhhh – I have just learnt what a goldcrest sounds like and realised I’ve been hearing them for years [ – very good transcription of it’s song into letters sir!]

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