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Richard Smyth: A Sweet, Wild Note

A Sweet, Wild Note is a cultural history of birdsong – a book not just about what the birds are saying when they sing, but about what we’re hearing when we listen to them. I’ve always been a birdwatcher but I’ve always had a bit of a tin ear for birdsong; this book is my way of exploring what I’ve been missing out on. Writing A Sweet, Wild Note took me from the poetry of Keats and the novels of Hardy to the science of bird vocalisations and the history of finch-keeping; from the music of Beethoven and Respighi to the technology that allows us to capture birdsong in vivid high fidelity; from Gilbert White to Detectorists; from asking why birds sing to thinking about why we love their songs. I learned fascinating new words, like ‘biophony’ and ‘syrinx’. I discovered that corn buntings have accents, blackbirds know how to avoid the rush-hour, and chaffinches sound like fast bowlers. I tracked the thread of birdsong through wars, revolutions and ecological crisis. But then I found that I had to ask more questions – like why, when birdsong is so important to us, when we’ve made it so central to our poetry, our music, our understanding of the natural world, we’re standing by while it fades away. I had to ask what it means when the songbirds fall silent. A Sweet, Wild Note is a book that celebrates what we have, and what we risk losing; it’s a book about birds and people, and the strange magic that we make together.

Richard Smyth is a writer, researcher and editor based in Bradford. He is a regular contributor to Bird Watching magazine, and reached the final of Mastermind with a specialist subject of British birds. He writes and reviews for The Times, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review, New Statesman, BBC Wildlife, New Humanist, Illustration and New Scientist. He also writes novels and short fiction, and has written several books on English history.


Heart Centre, Bennett Road, Leeds, LS6 3HN
Wednesday 14 March, 7.15pm

Haltwhistle Library, Westgate, Haltwhistle, Northumberland, NE49 0AX
Tuesday 2 May, 7.30pm

Haltwhistle Library, Westgate, Haltwhistle, Northumberland, NE49 0AX
Wednesday 3 May, 10am (birdsong walk)

Cleckheaton Library, Whitcliffe Road, Cleckheaton, BD19 3X
Thursday 10 May, 10.30am 

Horbury Library, Westfield Road, Horbury, Wakefield, WF4 6HP
Friday 25 May, 10.30am

Doncaster Central Library, Waterdale, Doncaster, DN1 3JE
Thursday 14 June, 7pm 

North Bridlington Library, Martongate, Bridlington, YO16 6YD
Thursday 21 June, 2pm

Advance booking is advisable and all events may be subject to change. See our individual event listings for further information.

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