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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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Sing me a Song

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Carefree and joyous, the singing of birds is as symbolic of springtime as the leafing of trees and the blossoming of flowers. "The hills are alive with the sound of music," the Trapp Family Singers proclaimed, and who can doubt that their hearts were cheered by the caroling of birds?

Bird song has been celebrated in prose and poetry through recorded time. The musical offerings of birds are noted in such diverse places as the writings of ancient Greek philosophers, the Bible, the legends of Native Americans, the literature and folklore of most nations and cultures.

"As music is the purest form of expression," naturalist and author Louis J. Halle muses, "so it seems to me that the singing of birds is the purest form for the expression of natural beauty and goodness in the larger sense, the least susceptible of explanation on ulterior practical grounds."

It is easy to wax poetic about the most gifted avian singers. Witness John Keats Ode to a Nightingale, considered one of the poet's greatest compositions, and To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley. But do birds have human emotions? Does a robin or cardinal really experience joy and exhilaration while singing? More and more scientists and behaviorists believe it is quite possible they might. Not exactly the same emotions humans experience but comparable at the level of the particular species' cerebration.

Such a conclusion might be reasoned in the following way. It is readily apparent that birds (and all of the higher animals) possess such emotions and sensations as fear, pain, distress and nervousness, excitement, devotion to offspring and sexual stimulation-just to name a few. So why is it unreasonable to conclude that happiness, a sense of well-being, and satisfaction are not within a bird's ability to experience?

Charles Hartshorne, author of Born to Sing, concludes that "the dominant emotions of birds, still more of croaking frogs or singing crickets, will of course be widely different from those of man, but not absolutely different or simply incomparable."

Hartshorne studied under the celebrated Alfred North Whitehead at Harvard, and taught philosophy at the University of Chicago prior to becoming the Ashbel Smith Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas. He was interested in birds for much of his life, having studied ornithology at the University of Michigan Biological Station and been a Field Associate at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology.

Among his other important works was The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation, published in 1934 by the University of Chicago Press and reprinted in 1968 by the Kennikat Press, in Port Washington, New York. At the same time, his far-ranging mind was probing into subjects such as the philosophy of religion.

In 1988, the State University of New York Press published a book about Hartshorne titled, Hartshorne & the Metaphysics of Animal Rights by Daniel A.Dombrowski. That, as they say, sounds like a good read to me.

"Beauty (and freedom) is always a mean between the classical determinist's supposed world and chaos," Hartshorne writes, and he goes on to say, "My conclusion is that the evolution of song has been toward increasing sensitivity to the value of contrast and unexpectedness as balancing the value of sameness and repetition."

To my own mind (and ear), there is more to bird song than any aesthetic qualities we may ascribe to it. The singing of birds and their attendant call notes are highly functional and perform a variety of roles, many of them of the greatest importance in survival value, all of them communicative in nature.

With most species, song is confined to or concentrated around the breeding season. This is not an absolute by any means because song sparrows, house finches, and numerous other species can be heard singing at other times of the year.

It is well known that one of the primary functions of bird song is to proclaim territory. Such areas vary in size from an acre or two for a bird such as a robin to many square miles for a red-tailed hawk. Linear distances between territories are also important. Bluebirds and red-winged blackbirds, for instance, usually have adjoining territories from other individuals of their species at least two hundred yards apart, but occasionally the distance is half that.

The establishment of territory consists of staking out a claim, selecting one or more singing perches, chasing away other intruding males of the same species, and proclaiming this acquisition and dominance with a profusion of song. In nature there are many exceptions to any rule. Some birds, for instance, many of them non-singing species such as great blue herons, are colonial nesters.

The singing of male birds also plays an important part in attracting and acquiring a mate, and in many cases probably acts as a bonding mechanism. Although some birds are monogamous, the fatality rate of most species is so high, especially in small birds, that the chances of both members of a pair surviving for two or three consecutive years is very slight. So the courtship ritual of territorial procurement and an outpouring of song becomes an almost annual imperative.

Many shorebirds perform their courtship songs on the wing. Woodcocks are an example, even though most of their so-called song is produced by the rush of air through their wing and tail feathers.

A number of other passerine species seem to get carried away with their singing and they burst into song while they are flying. These flight songs are common with horned larks, yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings, goldfinches, bobolinks, and a number of others.

Although most singing is performed by males, the females of some species do sing. This is true with the females of such species as the cardinal, mockingbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, gray catbird, Baltimore oriole and house finch.

Carolina wrens, cardinals and gray-cheeked thrushes also practice dueting or antiphonal singing. Such duets might possibly be part of the courtship ritual, in addition to reinforcing the pair bond.

It is less clear why many birds sing during the course of their northward migration in the spring. One explanation might be that even then the males are attempting to attract a female. It is also possible that territoriality extends to favored feeding areas. Or, maybe, they are giving lessons to any young birds-of- the-year that might be within earshot.

Most individuals of a given species have more than one song. Some birds have a repertoire of a dozen or more well-defined songs. In most cases, although the songs are different, the tonal quality and phrasing are usually typical of the species.

Aretas Saunders, an ornithologist who specialized in bird song, recorded 552 variations of song sparrow songs among different individuals. Margaret Morse Nice, whose intensive studies of song sparrows were conducted when she lived in Columbus, Ohio believed that simple songs are inborn, but that the complex songs of many species must be learned from parent birds or other individuals of their species.

Birds such as the mockingbird, gray catbird and European starling are adept at imitating the songs of other birds. Lesser degrees of mimicry have been recorded in many other species. There are also geographical variations in song. A rufous-sided towhee in Alabama might have a song significantly different from birds of that species nesting in Ohio.

In the Clear Creek Valley, I can be totally perplexed by the songs of cardinals and Carolina wrens who live next door to each other. They sound a bit alike to begin with but when they are influenced by each other's songs or when they deliberately set out to imitate their neighbor's song, I admit I can be baffled. Throw in a nearby Kentucky warbler who gets his two cents in on the act and anything is possible. To make matters even more interesting, in the valley they all have a slight accent, just the hint of a drawl, not southern, mind you. Neo-Appalachian is what I call it.

The outpouring of song delivered by one individual can be prodigious. Mrs. Nice reported that some individual male song sparrows sang over 2000 complete songs in a single day. Although many birds sing sporadically all day, the period of maximum song is usually during the early morning hours.

Exceptions, of course, include nocturnal species such as owls and whip-poor-wills. A few birds, however, normally regarded as diurnal, are also known to sing at night, especially if there is a full moon. These species include the marsh wren, mockingbird, yellow-breasted chat, common yellowthroat and cardinal. Artificial lights around shopping malls and car lots can induce birds such as robins to sing in the middle of the night.

Most young birds begin singing during their first year, in some cases soon after they leave the nest. Most often, song is initiated when the birds are about two months old, which is considerably younger than when Enrico Caruso started his career.

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© Tom Thomson. All rights reserved.
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