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The Song of Larks

John Stott joins the feathered chorus.

This excerpt is the 10th chapter of The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Bird Watcher by John Stott.

Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourestthy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art!
(Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to a Skylark, 1819)

Birds and humans have obvious characteristics which distinguish them from one another. Birds can fly; humans cannot.

Humans can make moral choices; birds cannot. Yet they have at least one thing in common: both sing! Both have vocal chords, even though ours is the larynx and theirs the syrinx.

Moreover, each bird species has its own distinctive song by which it can be recognised.

Two rather nondescript little greenish-yellow warblers — the Chiffchaff and the Willow Warbler — were originally thought to be the same species. They both nest in Europe and winter in Africa, and their look-alike plumage can deceive even experts.

But Gilbert White, the Hampshire parson and author of The Natural History of Selborne (1789), insisted that they must be distinct species because of their distinct songs. The former goes "chiff-chaff-chaffchiff" in a harsh, irregular and even erratic fashion, whereas the Willow Warbler utters a sweet cadence in a descending scale, in a minor key, and with a final flourish.

Only the tone-deaf could fail to appreciate the liquid bubbling trill of the curlew's spring song, the haunting yodel of the Great Northern Diver (Common Loon in North America), the resonant, explosive outburst of the wren ("Winter Wren" in North America), its tiny throat palpitating like a prima donna's, the melodious flutelike warbling of the male European Blackbird, or the Song Sparrow's varied repertoire of up to 25 little ...

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