Sunday, 19 June 2011

Let's hear it for the garden warbler

We should be honest, in the appearance stakes the garden warbler has an image problem, a reputation for being our dowdiest of birds. In a land where the non-enthusiast complains there are plenty of LBJs ('little brown jobs') for company, the garden warbler (he or she, for the sexes are alike) has made an art of plain dressing. He has no crest to strike a pose, no rufous breast to square up to a rival; he has no flashing wing bars or cocky eye stripe with which to woo a mate. His absence of distinguishing features, the RSPB notes with an exclamation mark, is itself a guide to identification. So who will speak up for the garden warbler? What can be said for this drab little bird?

To begin with, it is rather misleadingly named, unless you have the kind of garden that requires the services of a modern-day Capability Brown. Its taxonomic genus Sylvia gives a better clue to habitat. The garden warbler has a liking for woodland, especially for mature broad-leaved, deciduous trees from which it may venture into parks but never strays far. Sylvia borin is the specific name - not 'Sylvia boring' as I have heard before now.

Garden Warbler from Wiki Commons
What else? Like all our British warblers it diets mostly on insects, from which we can deduce several things. It is a summer visitor when food is plentiful, a long distance migrant. The garden warbler comes to us from central and southern Africa and its annual stay is a short one. Usually it has left again by early August. Catching enough insects to fatten up for the return flight is hard work, so warblers are active birds, rarely staying put for more than a few seconds. All in all its nondescript plumage and tendency to flit about in dense leaf cover makes the garden warbler a challenge to spot.

But if we can't see it we can always listen, and here is the reward for our effort. I suppose it ought to be a lesson to us that this plain little bird has one of the loveliest of songs. It comes in short bursts of a few seconds, like an out of practice soprano with plenty of power but short on breath. The notes are are all sweet without any of the scratches and whistles often associated with other warblers. But it is also elusive, never quite resolving into a 'tune', never quite repeating a refrain. Apparently the song contains much mimicry of other birds but it is delivered at a speed that makes this hard to discern. It would be revealing to hear a recording slowed down.

Many connoisseurs of birdsong have been lyrical in their praise of Sylvia borin. Sir Edward Grey, Liberal MP and British Foreign Secretary from 1905-1916, took much solace from birdsong in the dark days leading to the First World War. In his The Charm of Birds (1927) he places the garden warbler in the first order of songsters, running a close second to its stable mate, the blackcap. 'To my ear the opening notes of the blackcap's song and those of the garden-warbler are so alike that I hear them with a doubt of which bird I am listening to; but the garden-warbler goes on and on for a longer time and yet never seems to liberate its voice upon the air so completely as the blackcap does. In other words, a garden-warbler's song seems always on the point of an achievement to which only the blackcap attains.'

Another keen ornithologist, French serialist composer Olivier Messiaen was in awe of birdsong all his life. In the 1970s he published La fauvette des jardins, a thirty minute piece for solo piano, as his tribute to the supremacy of the garden warbler. The composition makes no attempt to imitate the song, but instead draws original inspiration from its tinkling beauty.

I have just spent a week camping in the quiet countryside of Teesdale, county Durham. The song of the garden warbler was part of my daily alarm call, some mornings rather earlier than I might have wished for! He (or she) had a favoured bush close by, a stopping off point on his territorial rounds, from which a few bursts of notes were rendered before moving on, ever restless, ever hungry. But even further afield his song was loud enough to lift above the general chorus. Like Sir Edward Grey, I was charmed. Like Olivier Messiaen, I was inspired. In a country of 'little brown jobs' there is nothing boring about Sylvia and we do well not to judge a bird by its cover.


  1. I love your homage to the charming visitor with inspirational soprano, who should not be judged purely by its cover. The photograph you have chosen is lovely. The bird looks utterly sweet and quite beautiful. I really enjoyed reading about it!

  2. I suppose like every other subject there is really no such thing as a boring bird. As I spent my week watching and listening to the garden warbler returning each day to the same location, I was reminded that some of the most meticulous and important ornithological studies in the past have been undertaken by prisoners of war. Confined and deprived of other stimuli they began watching the birds that visited their camps, making detailed observations of their behaviour. Some of their studies have become classics; their findings have contributed enormously to our understanding of some species and their approaches to recording what they saw are still emulated by modern field ornithologists. (Not that my campsite remotely resembled a prison I hasten to add!)