In the rising chorus over the past few weeks, one migratory bird has stood out as insistent, persistent, and more variable in its simple song than most books would have us believe.
Chiffchaffs are on the up; climate change has warmed their advance northwards, and here in the south they seem to be filling every copse, every patch of scrubland. They are often heard, but far less frequently seen.
On my five-mile morning run along the river and past the gravel pits, six birds sang. At the top of a wooded hill, a seventh. On the down slope I stopped under the trees to locate caller number eight. I thought I was directly beneath it, but I drew blanks among several trees, hundreds of branches, and thousands of twigs unfurling their leaves.
Bird guides tell us that this bird sings its name, a disyllabic “chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff”. The first two birds of the morning stuck to the script of this see-saw mnemonic, tempting me to rock my head in time with the beat. However, caller number three was one of a sizeable minority offering up a loose waltz in its opening salvo – “chiff, chaff-chaff”. Hilltop bird seven was what I would call a chopper, leaving the tiniest pauses between notes hurled out with dramatic emphasis: “Chiff! Chaff! Chiff! Chaff!”
A chiffchaff singing among the spring blossom. Photograph: Mike Lane/Getty Images
The day before, a bird in the willows overlooking Bedford’s medieval fish ponds had sung with even more startling originality, breaking out from the percussive norm to end each phrase with a frantic-sounding “cheree-cheree”. A conventional see-saw chiffchaff sang in opposition from bushes at the other end of grassy trenches, the remnants of the old ponds. What would the opposite sex think of this difference? Would it be heard as an alluring improviser or an aberrant to be shunned?
I pinpointed the eighth bird in the topmost branches. This singer was a compulsive fidget, shuffling its feet and turning one way, then the other, a mobile speaker wanting to spread its song about. Down below, I stood listening carefully, trying to separate the chiff from the chaff.