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|
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.