Not Just Music, Bird Song Is a Means of Courtship and Defense

Teach me half the gladness that the brain must know such harmonious madness from my lips would flow the planet should listen then, as i’m listening now. — “To a Skylark,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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FROM woods and meadows, suburban yards and city parks, a mixed chorus of avian melodies announces the arrival of spring. But many researchers who study bird songs are staying indoors. In laboratories equipped with sound-proof cages, spectrographs, computers and electron microscopes, they’re trying to unravel the surprising complexities of those ode-inspiring utterances.

What they’re finding suggests that even poets may have underpraised the communicative skills and musicality of song birds. And students of man may have overrated the individuality of human language and therefore the ability to speak through sound. 

“Birds are using an equivalent sensory apparatus we use to process sounds, but they’re using it to create a totally different universe than we sleep in ,” Dr. Jeffrey Cynx of the Rockefeller University in ny said in an interview. From his studies of bird songs he has come to believe that every animal lives in its own sensory and perceptual world. Thus what we hear within the bird’s song may only dimly resemble what the bird hears.

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Yet birds’ extreme acuity in recognizing the sounds of their own kind helps them make critics, of a kind, of human music. Debra Porter and Dr. Allen Neuringer at Reed College in Portland, Ore., trained pigeons to differentiate between selections from Bach and Stravinsky. The pigeons were then exposed to music by five other composers, which that they had to classify as sounding like Bach or like Stravinsky.

The birds correctly classified Buxtehude and Scarlatti as Bach-like and Eliot Carter and Piston as Stravinsky-like. the sole “mistake” the birds made, if misjudgment it had been , lay in grouping Vivaldi with Stravinsky.