The Singing Life of Birds

April 16, 2017 | Posted in: Modern Bestiary

Persimmons and White-Eyes, Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1880

Persimmons and White-Eyes, Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1880

“A bird does not sing because he has an answer.
He sings because he has a song.”
Joan Walsh Anglund, A Cup of Sun


Today being Easter, there’s much news of spring on the lips of everyone I meet and floral dresses and pastel shirts bedeck the streets. Everyone seems quite twitter-patted, in the spring of things as it were. But the birds, well they’ve been heralding spring for weeks now, never to be outdone in joy by any other animal.

This is the season of birdsong, when even the smallest finch bursts his lungs and heart out for all to hear, and you’d have to be hard of hearing, hard of heart, or hard on time not to take notice. Birds always seem to exude joy, but it’s in this season most of all, when their enthusiasm for the returning warmth bubbles out of them without restraint, that their songs take on a seemingly uncontrollable frenzy of glee. So what’s all this singing about, we humans would like to know?

“Biologically, yes, a bird sings to establish and defend a territory, to find and protect a mate and then a brood. But I suspect that they sing also because it is in their nature to sing. They sing because they must: because the music in them needs to escape.” Simon Barnes, Ten Million Aliens

There’s no evidence to the contrary that a bird greatly enjoys it’s vivacious search for a mate, the singing back and forth, the more intimate chattering negotiations of love. It’s not so different from our own searches for romance: We preen ourselves just as carefully before setting out to capture the attention of potential partners, using whatever physical and vocal allurements we possess. Birds just know how to serenade a lover far more naturally than we do.

Warblers, Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, Ferdinand Schuyler Mathews, 1921.

Illustration from Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, Ferdinand Schuyler Mathews, 1921.

One such Casanova of song isn’t much to look at. Its drabness has included it in the group birders call “little brown jobs,” meaning another little brown bird nearly indistinguishable from the many other species of little brown birds. But while the marsh warbler lacks color, its voice is an auditory rainbow:

“When it sings it becomes one of the most glorious, extravagant and over-the-top birds on the planet. It can sing for an hour or more without a break, and in that time create a song of such wit and invention that it leaves you staggered. It’s most famous for incorporating into its repertoires the songs of other species, and twisting and turning them to its own purpose. One famous piece of research on a small population counted a total of 212 different species imitated, each male having an average repertoire of 76…. Marsh warblers love to sing and three or four males will on occasions form a group and sing together, softly and more economically than when they are protecting a territory. It seems they are singing for the pleasure of it, for there is no apparent biological function to these glee parties. They just enjoy singing, singing together, sharing material and making music. This is nothing less than a jam session…” Barnes

The Four Seasons: Spring, William Holbrook Beard, date unknown

The Four Seasons: Spring, William Holbrook Beard, date unknown

The old English word “chirm” comes to mind during this season, with its multiple meanings, all appropriate: It can describe a group of finches, or the sound of many voices all intermingling, or the act of warbling or twittering away like a bird. Spring is the time to chirm, as every bird knows, but birds generously spread their singing year round. In some places the birds are so timely with their trills that a clock is rendered needless:

“The Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea have a clock of birds; women say the early-morning calls of the brown oriole and New Guinea frairbird and the hooded butcher-bird tell the children to wake up, and later in the day, the birds’ afternoon calls tell the children to return to their families.” Jay Griffiths, A Sideways Look at Time

Birds learn their sing-songy language, the varied chirps, whistles, squeaks, croaks, coos, and trills, from their parents, just as we humans do from ours. And these languages differ among the same species depending on location. A northeastern crow won’t even recognize the call of a southern crow initially. The dialectic variation would require some rubbing of elbows, or wings in this case, before the two crows would begin to understand one another as both being members of the same crow tribe.

Baby jays, The Book of Baby Birds, by F.E. Hardy, illustrated by E.J. Detmold, New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912

Baby jays, The Book of Baby Birds, by F.E. Hardy, illustrated by E.J. Detmold, New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912

“Baby birds aren’t born knowing their song; they learn the song of their parents. If you raised some birds away for their parents and whistled a different song—the opening notes of Beethoven’s Ninth, say—then they would learn your song… Until they get the knack of making real songs, baby birds often babble and chatter and make a lot of noise that doesn’t seem to mean anything. Like human babies, they are discovering the shock of being able to make sounds at all; eventually they learn to control the sounds, and they practice.”  Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Soon the babblings of baby birds will join with their parents meaningful songs, and it will go so quickly, so take note, clean the cobwebs from your ears, and feast on the auditory wonders of the season. The Swedish even have a word to describe such an intention:

“gökotta (noun, Swedish) lit. ‘dawn picnic to hear the first birdsong’; the act of rising in the early morning to watch the birds or to go outside to appreciate nature.” Yee-Lum Mak, OtherWordly

Bayerischer Kunstgewerbe-Verein (Bavarian Arts and Crafts), vintage art magazine, Vol 65, 1914-1915.

Illustration in Bayerischer Kunstgewerbe-Verein (Bavarian Arts and Crafts) vintage art magazine, Vol 65, 1914-1915.

The following books informed this post:
A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman
Ten Million Aliens, Simon Barnes

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