Yesterday morning, I filled the kettle but paused, before turning it on, to listen. Outside the back door I could hear a Song Thrush singing. Opening the door, and taking a step outside, this single bird’s song was almost the only sound. About 100m away I could see the bird in question near the top of a bush in another garden. I could probably have guessed it was a Song Thrush from the distant sight of it but there was no doubt at all of its identity, as this individual bird produced one of the most beautiful sounds that nature can provide in the UK. I paused for a few moments, even though the air was cold, to listen.
Standing there I was connected to another individual living creature; mammal listens to bird, but I was listening to that individual Song Thrush. He wasn’t singing to me, but I was most certainly listening to him.
But standing outside at 6am in your dressing gown in February is a delight which chills so I went inside and turned on the kettle. I listened to the kettle making ‘heating up water noises’ – is your kettle as loud as mine? It’s almost as though it’s boasting about how much work it’s doing.
The mugs are ready, they have milk in them, the teapot is emptied and then tea-ed up, I found the Digestive biscuits and wondered how many to eat and then I took the empty milk bottles from the draining board to the front door.
As I walked the short distance I thought that the song I had heard was what economists would call a public good. The beauty of a Song Thrush’s song cannot be sequestered by me. If I stand listening to the Song Thrush singing, its value is not used up by me, you can listen to it too. You or half a dozen people might have been standing at their back doors listening to the same song when I did. None of us could capture it ourselves and sell it on to others directly. It is pretty much clearly a non-market public good. Sounds a bit dry I know, but that’s what it is.
I got to the front door, had the usual short battle of turning the key in its stiff lock (must spray some lubricant in there soon), juggled two empty milk bottles and opened the front door. As I put the milk bottles outside I heard two more Song Thrushes – different ones, and farther away. But unmistakably Song Thrushes. More public goods or more beautiful song, depending on what mood you’re in.
How are they unmistakable? The Song Thrush is called a song thrush because its song sounds like someone aiming for a beautiful melodic performance and succeeding every time, outside any front door and in gardens and woods across the land.
Not for nothing did Browning think of Song Thrushes from abroad;
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
The best poets are good, aren’t they? Fine careless rapture is right and then to nail the repeated nature of the song just shows that he really did know what he was on about! And you’re much more likely to hear a Song Thrush singing in England (other UK countries are available) than in Italy, not just because they eat a few thrushes in Italy but because this is a relatively common bird in the UK compared with southern Europe.
Hardy got Song Thrushes too. His darkling thrush was throwing its soul into the evening air in a full-hearted evensong of joy unlimited.
But the kettle must be boiled now. As I retraced my steps to the kitchen I thought that I rarely see a Song Thrush in the garden – none yet in 2020 and none for months and months, and yet today, and for weeks to come, every fine morning, I will hear their songs, and not just an individual but a few dotted around this rural town’s streets and gardens. Not for me are Ted Hughes’s attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, but I will be listening to singing Song Thrushes all spring long.
Time for tea, and whatever the day will bring.