Originally published April 2009
Hello everyone! Let us get started with that show of hands. What has the God Pan and the sounds of the Andes to do with us mere mortals being woken up at some unearthly hour at this time of year? I’m sure none of you has had a problem associating the cloven hooved one with the Flight of the Condor; the link being the Pan Pipes. But do you know how the Pan pipes came into being and what does it all have to do with our early mornings?
In Greek mythology the story is told of how Pan, a god renowned for his amorous ways, pursued Syrinx, a nymph renowned for her chastity, to the edge of a river. In desperation she called upon the river nymphs for aid and in the spirit of all such tales was turned into hollow water reeds. In his frustration Pan started to huff and puff and discovered that the reeds made a haunting sound as he blew across them. He decided to cut them and made the first set of Pan Pipes, which became known as the Syrinx.
This perfectly feasible little tale led to the naming of the birds’ equivalent to our larynx (voice-box) as the syrinx. It is a spectacularly clever piece of kit which uses near enough 100% of the air pushed through from the avian lungs (our mammalian larynx uses less than 2%). Their lungs are even fitted with little air sacs attached for extra storage space. Some birds have only one set of muscles controlling the syrinx and consequently have a very limited range of sound, think of our wood pigeons! Our song birds use several sets of muscles and as a result have a range and volume of sounds that are truly astounding.
It’s getting to that time of year when the feathered ones have been working on those muscles, tuning their syrinx and inflating their customised lungs ready to explode into the wonder that is the Dawn Chorus, the best early morning alarm in the world – sadly a phenomenon that has lost its impact over the last twenty-five years or so in many parts of the country. Some of us can remember when it was physically impossible to sleep after four in the morning, I for one loved it!
Our little Reserve in Crowhurst is certainly the place to get a flavour of how the whole of our wooded countryside (in other words, practically all of it!) would have sounded for the past millennia. As I mentioned last month, the overall effect of many avian species vying with each other at full throttle is far from cacophonous. Finches, blackbirds, thrushes, robins, wrens and even the less melodic starlings, wood pigeons, jackdaws, rooks, crows and woodpeckers all contribute to the ‘surround sound’ experience and each can be picked out from the multitude if you listen carefully.
This of course is the idea. Unlike say, Verdi’s ‘Anvil Chorus’ or his ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ or the whole of Crowhurst School singing ‘My Mum’ (fabulous!) where it is impossible to tell one singer from another, the Dawn Chorus is essentially a harmonious mix of conflicting opinions! It is tempting to think that the birds are striving to produce a magnificent sound that is pleasing to our ear, however they are just trying to make themselves heard above everyone else! Having said that, the balance of nature is such that the loss of any single species would have an effect, either directly or indirectly, on all the others and the ongoing decline in bird populations would accelerate.
So next time you are standing under a tree and are suddenly taken to a higher plane by a cascade of sound filling your soul, just remember that that blackbird or songthrush is producing its song from something little bigger than a raindrop and give thanks to Mother Nature and of course Pan!
Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
My thoughts exactly, Percy! As always, put me right at email@example.com