Not a dirge but the fine spirit of the Downs

Corn bunting
Corn bunting

HAVE you ever heard a corn bunting’s song? It is a simple tune, like someone rattling loose change in their pocket.

Some say a bunch of keys. It is a jingle, but not with bells.

Bored birders of bygone days claimed the song was a dirge.

Others myself included, that it is the spirit of the Downs, and the old harvest fields.

It is a skirl, like far-away pipes in the Highlands. It is that powerful for those who long to be out in the fresh air with the far views of Sussex on all sides.

It is a husky call of the wide open spaces.

Hear it on a fresh summer morning at that moment when the barley fields drop their anthers. In that still moment you can hear the rustle of the vast and silent multitude giving a breath of release as each plant prepares itself for sexual fulfilment. At that moment, the corn bunting sings.

Woodlarks and nightjars give the resonance of our heaths, curlews our shores, song thrushes our gardens, and snipe our river meadows.

The skylark begins the downland day when Sagittarius rises in our summer skies.

That is before the dawn, before that first green volley in the vaults of heaven.

It is then the skylarks tells the knell of passing night. That is a brave sound, a target for night-fighter peregrines.

Those dawn flights are akin to the patrols by the canvas and wire biplanes.

The skylark comes down to earth, and then the daylight patrol is to the corn bunting. But he is no high flier.

He flutters low down above the corn, his legs dangling ready to land.

The second he grasps the wire of the field fence his beak flies open, his head goes back, his speckled breast puffs out, and that curious little ditty is broadcast.

No sooner is the song delivered, it is repeated, over and over again. Like Schubert’s famous organ-grinder, he seems driven to perpetual tune to earn his living.

But in the county now they are declining fast. Only about 70 songsters are counted.

The Trundle is one sure place to hear that rattle of coins and keys. Their stronghold though is between the Arun and Adur.

You might hear a winter flock of 300 birds tuning up in Rye, at Amberley Mount, or Ditchling.

I saw a couple of dozen with yellowhammers just north of Midhurst in the thick old hedges around Easebourne.

Another good place to hear these cornfield icons is on the high Downs north of Worthing, at Blackpatch and also Harrow Hill.

Let us hope they do not disappear almost altogether as the cirl bunting has, from Sussex.