Written by Beatrice Bray.

The French twentieth century composer Olivier Messeain took avian observations to a new level. Not just content with listening to birds, he sought to recreate it in his music:


I wouldn’t attempt to emulate either his musicianship or his record as an ornithologist, not least because my own expertise is rather more limited. However, as I understand it, Messeain went a good many steps further than earlier composers such as Beethoven. Beethoven used motifs to evoke birdsong but Messiaen sought to be more exact and naturalistic. He went beyond musical cliché. Instead of incorporating elements of birdsong into existing harmonic language, he used musical instruments as a means of mimicking bird calls.

Inspired by Messeain, I did what I could to entice birds to my small backyard. I dutifully cleaned out my mock classical wall fountain and added fresh water. I sat back and waited.

First at the fountain was a pair of waddling pigeons. No song there but there was an awful lot of flapping as they engaged in competitive feather washing.

Next a thrush turned up to sup. It was wary and I don’t blame it. A cat sometimes frequents my garden but I reckon even the most agile moggy would struggle to catch my feathered friends at my font. But I digress.

The following yellow-breasted bird was a most pert and alert blue tit. It pecked at the water but by far and away the boldest bird caller was a robin. I observed all the others from my kitchen table. The back door was open but my table must have been around four metres away from the wall fountain. Advocates of social distancing would have found the gap acceptable. However, my red-breasted friend didn’t care at all about my proximity. It wasn’t after water. I was outside that time felling an invasive pyracantha bush. That robin landed a foot away from me and eyeballed me up close and personal. Whose garden is it anyway?

Written by Beatrice Bray