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(Bird)songs for your spring listening

A playlist for birdwatching … And birds on my office door!

A bird sings sitting in grass meadow near the village of Lyubcha, about 120 km ( 75 miles) southwest of Minsk, Belarus, Saturday, June 25, 2016. A heat wave hit the Belarus with temperatures going higher than 30C (86 F). AP Photo/Sergei Grits

It’s migration season in Wisconsin. I love listening to and spotting birds in the spring, whether they’re just passing through or are year-round residents. 

As mating season ramps up, the birdsong becomes especially interesting, with beautiful and intricate songs expressing the drive to attract mates and protect territories.

The Merlin Bird ID app from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology has been one of my greatest treasures and aids in identifying the birds I hear. WPR’s former “Morning Edition” host Melissa Ingells introduced me to it. Just start the recorder and the app returns the names of all the birds it hears, highlighting each one as it sings.

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We know that public radio listeners enjoy birding and other outdoor activities. And judging from the cards I’ve received, listeners enjoy birds depicted in art as well. I treasure all the letters and cards sent over the years, and I recently put some of the bird-themed images on the door of my office — it lifts my spirits to see them.

Bird cards from listeners on my office door. Stephanie Elkins/WPR

There is a long history in classical music of composers emulating birdsong, from Antonio Vivaldi’s “Goldfinch Concerto” to Amy Beach’s “A Hermit Thrush at Morn.” Ottorini Respighi’s “The Birds” also comes to mind, with the hen scratching around on the ground and the dove’s soft call. Other pieces capture the feeling that a bird’s song might convey, like François Couperin’s “Le Rossignol-en-Amour” (The Nightingale in Love.)

One of the earliest bird pieces was a pop song of its time: “Le Chant des Oiseaux” (The Song of the Birds) by Clement Janequin, which has the choir emulating several different bird songs. (Janequin, by the way, was a famous Parisian songwriter born in 1485!) Another of that ilk is Thomas Weelkes’s “The Nightingale, the Organ of Delight,” of 1608, in which the choir sings about the blackbird, thrush and lark. 

It’s the cuckoo who reigns supreme in music, though, with countless pieces incorporating its iconic simple call using the interval of a minor third. Handel’s “Organ Concerto in F,” nicknamed “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale,” is a great example. So is Johann Schmelzer’s “Cuckoo Sonata” with a recorder providing the voice of the bird. There’s also Frederick Delius’s lovely “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, and Peter Tchaikovsky’s art song, “Cuckoo.”

This is all wonderful music to enjoy year-round, but nothing beats the real thing on a gorgeous spring day in Wisconsin.

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