Country diary: let’s begin with the redstart

If there is a more beautiful summer bird in Britain than the common redstart then its name escapes me. The male’s back is the colour of dark limestone. There is a circle of basaltic grey around the face and a flake of quartz at the forecrown, but his breast is the warmest, softest orange in an English spring.

In this county Phoenicurus phoenicurus is the genius loci of patchy scrub in limestone dales – those rather widely spread hawthorns that cleave to the top of slopes and whose wind-warped shapes remind me of ancient olives. From the crowns of a nest of these bushes the male was busy inscribing his territory in song.

I kept note of the patterns, which were strikingly regular. The phrase is a brief, intense, content-packed two-second burst that is delivered at intervals of six seconds, so in every minute, on average, it issues seven songs. What struck me most was the extent of mimicry entwined in a redstart’s formulaic ditty.

The full vocalisation is a performance of two distinct halves. The first second comprises a sequence of rapidly slurred notes that rise in pitch and impact. All redstarts produce it. You hear it, you know instantly who the author is. It is, as it were, the species’ signature sound.

Yet the next half, the other second of music, is more individual, more varied, and piled into it are phrases that each bird has copied from other species. This one did incredibly accurate snatches of nuthatch, lesser whitethroat, greenfinch and common whitethroat. Another redstart I attended substituted fragments of linnet, redpoll, siskin and possibly green woodpecker. These parts of the whole song I took to be its individual statement. So the full thing appears to be a complex expression of collective identity, but also of separate vocal prowess.

The element that moved me most about sitting here these hours with redstarts was that in half a century I’d never noticed these things before. I was reminded in a personal context of the words of Jean-Henri Fabre, the 19th-century French entomologist: “Human knowledge will be erased from the world’s archives before we possess the last word that a gnat has to say to us.”


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