Skylark Notes: The song that moved Shelley moved me

I’m not much into the Romantic poets. I find them tiresome.

Wordsworth was a contrived bore who started to make sense only in his evening years. Byron died young and that earned him immortality. Coleridge was a junkie who inspired some of Iron Maiden’s iconic numbers (though, regrettably, not the one about the beast). Keats was maudlin. And Shelley. Gosh, Shelley was mostly insufferable. Though I was forced to read and re-read To The Skylark so many times over in high school and, later, in college, it left me stiff and unmoved. Being a birder, I knew the skylark better than the professor did.

True to character (and cliché), he was miffed when I corrected him for extolling it as “a beautiful bird.” I told him it was dull, brown and dowdy (I hadn’t yet chanced upon the acronym that British birders preferred: LBJ, Little Brown Job) and that even Shelley may not have considered the bird pretty. My “impudence” earned my sentencing: Get out of the class!

Just like that, on a lark.

A bit of that moment, and several pleasant birding memories, came back in a rush last weekend when my family and I spent the last morning of our Goa vacation at Chapora Fort. The rains have departed leaving Goa with a thick, verdant cover of vegetation. Chapora was all shades of green – moss green, algal green, grass green, foliage green. And birds were all over the place. But it was a speck of dowdy brown in the sky that caught my attention.

An Oriental Skylark, to the ornithologist, answers to the name of Alauda gulgula. It flies up into the air, then soars higher and higher until it is little more than a speck, all the while pouring out a rich warbling song. Depending on where the bird lives, it incorporates notes from other bird calls and songs. What I find particularly interesting about the Skylark is in how those notes are seamlessly meshed into the song.

Now I know Shelley wasn’t smoking anything special. All credit to the Skylark.

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