Monday, 1 July 2013

Dodgy transcriptions of birdsong

One of my favourite television programmes is BBC Four’s Only Connect, in which contestants have to find the links between sets of words, phrases, symbols, images or musical extracts.

In an episode broadcast on 1 July 2013, one question asked for the connection between the phrases “My toe bleeds, Betty”, “Teacher! Teacher!”, “Who cooks for you?” and “A little bit of bread and no cheese”. 

I realised the answer after the appearance of the second phrase, which is a common representation of the typical song of the Great Tit. My solution was confirmed by the fourth phrase, which is a well-known, if not particularly accurate, transcription of the song of the Yellowhammer. And the official solution was indeed “transcribed versions of bird calls”. 

But I admit to being flummoxed by the first and third phrases. In my innocence I was not aware that “My toe bleeds, Betty” supposedly describes the song of the Woodpigeon. According to the British Trust for Ornithology website, other transcriptions of the wood pigeon’s song include “Take two cows, Taffy'” and “A proud wood-pig-eon”. So far as I am concerned, none of these dodgy phrases sounds much like the pigeon’s song, which to my ears is usually “ROO-coo-coo, roo-coo [repeat two or more times], coo”. That final “coo” is a distinctive part of the song — a coda, if you will.

(By the way, the BTO website uses both “wood pigeon” and “woodpigeon”. Some consistency would be appreciated.)

I also learnt from the BTO website that the Collared Dove’s song, simpler than that of the Woodpigeon, is supposedly akin to a football fan chanting “un-it-ed, un-it-ed, un-it-ed”. Rubbish! To my ears, the song is a simple “roo-COO-coo”, repeated as nauseam. 

And what about “Who cooks for you”? The answer given on Only Connect was the Barred Owl, with no explanation that this is a north American bird rather than a British species like the Woodpigeon, Great Tit and Yellowhammer. And the alleged transcription of the owl's call is inadequate, since it usually makes its presence known with a series of eight accented hoots ending in “oo-aw”, with a downward pitch at the end. The most common mnemonic device for remembering it is not a mere “Who cooks for you” but “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.”

Despite this gripe, I recommend Only Connect to all readers of this blog.