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A Warning Song from the Skylarks?
Birds can be heard earlier than usual in U.K.
Peter Hinchliffe (Hinchy)     Print Article 
Published 2007-03-17 07:51 (KST)   
Skylarks have been in full song in Yorkshire's Pennine hills for more than six weeks.

Male larks, mere dots in the sunlit sky as they hover above pastureland, are a month early in trying to attract the loving attentions of a female of the species.

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On a daily walk through highland meadows I am never out of range of the soaring song of the larks.

Tim Melling, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds conservation officer who is based in Yorkshire, says that he heard larks singing in early February. The birds are reacting to unseasonably warm and sunny weather.

Britain is emerging from its warmest winter ever recorded. BBC weatherman Paul Hudson reported that the county's highest ever January overnight temperate, 11.5 degrees Celcius, was recorded at Leeming, a temperature more normal at that time of year for North Africa rather than North Yorkshire.

A U.S. government agency announced this week that this winter in the Northern Hemisphere was the warmest since records began more than 125 years ago. The combined land and ocean surface temperature from December to February was 0.72 degrees Celcius (1.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above average.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does not see this winter's high temperatures as positive proof that humans are causing global warming. El Nino, a seasonal warming of parts of the Pacific Ocean, has contributed to this winter's exceptional warmth.

However, the U.S. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report last month saying that it is at least 90 percent certain that human emissions of greenhouse gases rather than natural variations are warming the planet's surface.

Tim Melling points out that British skylarks are not regular migratory birds. In particularly harsh winters skylarks from Russia and Scandinavia seek warm refuge in England. British birds move from high ground to lowland pastures during colder months. Some have been known to fly to Ireland, which has a milder climate, during rare severe winters.

Skylarks produce two or three broods of chicks a year, though during the past decade there has been a 50 percent reduction in the number of larks, Melling reports. This has much more to do with changing farming practices than climate changes. Grasslands are now mown early to produce silage for cattle feed, rather than mown in late summer to produce hay.

Skylarks are by no means the only English birds that are active far earlier this year. "I saw a blackbird with nesting material in its beak right outside our office this morning. Nest building is starting early," Melling added.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a charitable organization, was founded in Britain in 1889 to campaign against the use of great crested grebe skins and feathers in fur clothing. The Society now promotes the conservation and protection of birds, with 1,500 employees and 12,000 volunteers. It has a million members, which makes it the largest wildlife conservation charity in Europe, and maintains 182 wildlife reserves across the U.K.

The RSPB is urging people to be careful of nesting birds when they are tending to their gardens at this time of year. March and April are busy months for gardeners as they prepare for summer, and this coincides with the busiest time of year for birds.

Birds are naturally secretive and tend to hide their nests away for safety. The RSPB is asking people to keep their eyes peeled when cutting or pruning their hedges or shrubs, or better still, leave their tidying until a bit later in the year.

If nests are discovered, gardeners are advised to restore any covering and give them a wide berth until the young have flown off to be independent.

All birds, their nests and their eggs are protected by law in the United Kingdom. It is illegal to deliberately destroy a nest while it is being used by the birds.

Poets have long lauded skylarks as the heralds of the British springtime. Percy Shelley's oft-quoted lines highlight the special claim to affection that the bird holds for millions of British nature lovers.

Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Some years ago David Hindley, a former head of music at Huddersfield New College who later taught music at a Cambridge college, suggested that a skylark's song is on a par with the works of great composers.

Birdsong is so fast and its pitch so high that our ears cannot make proper sense of it. The skylark delivers 230 notes per second.

Mr. Hindley recorded skylarks with a high-tech recorder, then slowed down the tape. He found that the songs of the birds were as subtle and complex as a Beethoven symphony.

"It is on equal terms with anything man has written," he said.

According to Mr. Hindley the tunes of skylarks follow a classical sonata form -- exposition, development, recapitulation. "With invention, not repetition. If it was an automaton, it would repeat the music precisely."
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Peter Hinchliffe

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