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Coming home to chaffinches

October 13, 2012

chaffinch. n. a little song-bird of the finch family (Chambers 20th Century English Dictionary, 1983).

After robins and blackbirds, starlings and house sparrows, the chaffinch was the first species of wild bird I learned to recognise. I learned it, I’m sure, quite deliberately, from my identification guides that I pestered my mother to buy for me; and also from the human guides that I occasionally encountered in my birdwatching forays. The ability to recognise a chaffinch took me beyond the everyday, the mundane in terms of species-recognitions. Any children’s story book could give you a robin or a blackbird; sparrows were in the bible; and starlings were simply everywhere. But chaffinches were different. To know a chaffinch was to have moved beyond learning by osmosis, beyond unthinking, disinterested, obvious fact. To know a chaffinch was to have demonstrated an interest in birds, to have crossed some kind of border. To know a chaffinch was to have gained a conscious level of expertise.

I don’t remember when exactly I learned to identify chaffinches. Perhaps it was when, at the age of nine or ten, and a proud member of the Young Ornithologists Club, the junior wing of the RSPB, I spent a week on a field course at the Magilligan Field Centre in Co Derry. Outside of visits to relatives, this was my first time away from home on my own. I was in heaven. I’ve no doubt I was a pest with my enthusiasm, my determinedly hanging onto every word our leaders said, fighting my way to the top of the queue for every venture out. Our leaders must have been saints taking a bunch of primary school children out on all-day birdwatching trips. It may have been there I had this summary imprinted on my brain: “double white wing-bar; white outer tail feathers”. It has a ring of authority, of clinching emphasis. Words spoken, emphasised, by a voice other than my own: a patient, rather nerdy, male voice. A voice with a beard, and glasses. I still feel a faint sense of relief when I remember those words: oh, it’s that easy. Always that feeling of a tension lifting when faced with the sooth of incontrovertible fact. No ambiguity. No more guesswork. So, with all the thousands of chaffinches I’ve seen in the years since, I still get a little thrill when I spot those splashes of white. Back then, being able to spot them, confirm their owner, set me on the path from nebulous attraction to focussed attention; gave me something to pursue rather than puzzle over.

The ubiquity of chaffinches could risk a dilution their charm. They don’t have the tinkling glamour of goldfinches, or the self-contained plush of a bullfinch. They are pert, brisk, busy, loquacious birds. Of course, the males steal the show in terms of colour, and they are a delight in terms of subtleties of contrast: the rust breast; the slate-grey head; the olive rump. The females, however, have the same patterns dulled, softened, to tones of sepia. Both sexes engage in lively conversation: the peremptory ‘chink’, or nominative ‘fink’ as the books have it; the querulous alarm call; and, for the males, that relentless little squeezebox of a song, its demanding assertion. Pleasant, if a little monotonous.

Chaffinches have played a definitive, foundational role in our understanding of bird song, and the part learning plays in its development. Like ourselves, and just a few other groups of animals – the cetaceans – whales and dolphins – are another, songbirds learn their vocalizations. Studying the role of learning in bird song provides a wealth of understanding not only of birdsong itself, but the role of learning generally, the interaction between neurology and the social environment, the interplay between nature and nurture. With regard to the latter, there’s no debate. It’s not either/or; it’s both/and. I speak English, because my parents, my community, spoke English. A chaffinch sings chaffinch because that’s what it hears other chaffinches singing. I speak with an Irish accent. I wouldn’t be mistaken for being American, or Australian, or English. My accent wouldn’t even be confused with my late mother’s who hailed from County Tipperary, and into her old age, when shopping in Enniskillen, despite a lifetime, my lifetime, living in Fermanagh, was still occasionally asked was she just up for the day. So too, an Irish chaffinch wouldn’t be confused with a German one. However, like all songbirds, chaffinches are not endlessly flexible in their ability to learn, in the same way that I don’t speak gorilla, (or perhaps a better comparison might be vervet monkey, given the latter’s known use of specific alarm calls to denote a specific predator – which they too have to learn) so a chaffinch will not sing greenfinch, or serin. However variable the local dialect, it is still recognisably chaffinch, and youngsters will learn their local dialect, which ‘crystallises’ in adulthood. Then the chaffinch is recognisably, definitively, of that place.

I first learned about songbird dialects way back in the eighties as a 21-year old undergraduate. Chaffinches were the exemplar because it was an English entomologist, Bill Thorpe, who, way back in the fifties, set up an ornithological field station that began to tease out the roles of instinct and learning, nature and nurture. Work that began on chaffinches. Later, Thorpe’s PhD student, Peter Marler, continued and developed this work, eventually moving to the US and generating the exponential growth in song learning and dialect research based around Berkeley, California. Now other species gained centre-stage: song and swamp sparrows; dark-eyed juncos and white crowned sparrows. But all this research began with chaffinches. They were the seed, the spark, the origin of all that work.

Currently, I’m working on chaffinches. The work is mundane, repetitive, not exactly inspiring in its plodding exactitude. I don’t even listen to the songs any more. I don’t have to. I can read them. Chaffinches have a fairly simple song, around six different song types adhering to the same general pattern. A bit of a rattle of a few different types of syllables, culminating in a wheezy flourish. I can hear the sound in my head at a glance. The work is detailed, absorbing. It draws on all my, admittedly deep, reserves of fact-gloating nerdiness. What keeps me focussed and attentive, what fires my determination to complete this accumulation of data as accurately and completely as I can, is not just the prize at the end: the PhD, the papers, the possible career; the future. It’s also the past. It is also a way of honouring my own history and that of the chaffinch’s contribution to research.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the past recently. It’s my mother’s third anniversary on the 15th, and I’m only just getting used to the notion that she’s not coming back; that while she lives in my mind and my dreams, I won’t see her in this life again. And I’ve been thinking of the Fermanagh village where I grew up, the fields, the woods, the accents of the people I grew up among. I don’t sound like them any more. My voice has been shaped by the other places, the other people I’ve lived among also. Yet, when I’m counting and measuring my chaffinch spectrograms, I also remember the hedgerows, those thin woodlands of my childhood, laced with their song. I remember myself in that long-ago lecture theatre, churned with excitement at the thought of their dialects. I think of Bill Thorpe, Peter Marler, Peter Slater, Katherina Riebel, Albertine Leitao, and all the other researchers who have done so much work on chaffinch song before me. I feel somewhat disbelieving, a little in awe, that my work grows out of theirs.

So, as my voice has changed, so has my home. We all need our past, our history to grow out of. These days, however, when I miss the lack of a physical origin, in terms of my parents, in terms of the wrench of leaving my childhood home forever, it is comforting to realise that my history is not simply rooted in those places, with the people of my past. Home is not just those Fermanagh fields of old. We dwell, to some extent, where we choose; we can make our dwelling place. My past also encompasses the childish excitement of knowing I could, with certainty, identify a chaffinch; the adult thrill of learning that they too had dialects. Now I live in a bower of chaffinches, that encircles those Fermanagh fields, that lecture theatre, and like the chaffinch’s terminal flourish, leaps to grapple serious conceptual issues, of belonging, continuance, of meaning and success, all packed into a two-second song.

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3 Comments
  1. This is what you do when you’re not trying!! Tears again

  2. This is such a beautiful post. I am sure you don’t have time to submit it elsewhere, but it should be published! I’ve been interested in understanding your work better, and although I’m sure this is just a taste, I’m intrigued. I learned so much about birdsong. I had no idea that birds have dialects? I thought a chaffinch in one part of the world would be identical in song to one from another place. Fascinating!

    Your tender thoughts as the anniversary of your mother’s passing nears, really touches my heart. I’m so glad you took the time to share so deeply. You have amazing gifts! Continue to share them! Once again, this was extraordinary to read. oxo

  3. You both flatter too much! Thank you! I’m so glad these musings/ramblings convey something of what I feel about chaffinches. And other stuff ….

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