The theme of bird sounds has reappeared in the Guardian’s Country Diary with Paul Evans’ paean to the song of the robin. There are a couple of aspects to Evans’ piece that particularly struck me. The first is the timeless question of what a bird’s singing means, of what message it might carry. Songs can carry all kinds of meanings for us, and we might speculate, as Evans does, on what they mean to the bird. But perhaps the singing doesn’t really mean anything at all. It doesn’t carry a message but, like any music, gives form to feeling. Perhaps which of these alternatives we prefer might depend on whether we think of bird song as music or language. Secondly, Evans finishes his piece by suggesting that, whatever the song might mean to the robin, it marks a means through which our world and his are drawn together. The music of birds becomes the music of our lives too.
December 19, 2007
December 18, 2007
It may be just coincidence but there have been two short articles in the past few days in the British press about wigeon, one by Mark Cocker in the Guardian’s Country Diary and one by Simon Barnes in the Times. Both mention the ducks sharp whistling call and how this evokes a sense of wildness and space. Cocker writes,
The whole cycle of action resolved into just two basic sounds - the high, clear whistling that we can easily imitate but never capture in speech. The bird’s old local names - whim, whewer, whew and smee - convey our attempts but little of the falling notes’ alchemical powers. In concert wigeon calls are somehow the sounds of the cold and the ice blue and the huge empty spaces.
Barnes goes a step further with,
Contact with the wild world gives a positive charge to your life. The whistling of wigeon in a place of desolation is an empowerment, nothing less.
Something about the shrill, piercing sound of the wigeon clearly brings us this sense of space and grandeur that both authors describe, a feeling that it’s harder to gain from the ‘vulgar quacking’ of a mallard or its domestic descendants. It’s this thrill of the rushing, whistling mass of a great flock of wigeon that Barnes is thinking of when he advocates the virtues of ‘contact with the wild world’. But what, I wonder, counts as ‘contact’ in this sense? Does it have to be a grand spectacle or can it be something smaller, more mundane - the herring gull crying from the rooftops, the blackbird singing out its mellifluous notes from the garden? Perhaps Barnes would agree that these are wild too, but I think the emphasis should be less about what we have contact with and more towards what we look and listen for. As the historian William Cronon (1996) has written, there are many problems inherent in creating a grand spectacle of wilderness as a contrast to our all too human and technology-bound lives. The desolate wilderness as the anti-human world of pure nature sets us at once outside of that which we seek. We can have contact with this world but we can never be a part of it. The antidote to this, Cronon argues, if we are still to gain from the positive effects of engaging with non-humans, is to perceive the wildness, rather than wilderness, in our everyday lives. An experience of wildness is one of perception rather than one created for us to make contact with.
I’m more taken with Cocker’s attention to the difficulties of perception, of distinguishing all that is going on. Here, attuning to the experience is as much about appreciating what we can’t sense as what we can, like the flock of golden plovers in the distance where we can see a sound being made without hearing it. The movements of light that we see give onto an anticipation of the movement of air that produces sound and through our experience of being in the world, through our skill at perceiving and our imagination, we can hear and see what we sometimes cannot sense.
My local flock of wigeon is rather small. They spend the winter - perhaps 50 or 100 strong - on a small loch right next to the A956. The traffic coming in and out of Aberdeen thunders past and the whistling and flurries of wings are less emphatic than those great masses in East Anglia that Cocker and Barnes describe. But the whistling still cuts through the rumbling engines, a wildness that can be experienced by anyone attuned to it.
Cronon, W. 1996. The trouble with wilderness; or, getting back to the wrong nature. In Uncommon Ground (ed) W. Cronon. London: W.W. Norton.
December 10, 2007
I’ve just read a piece on the BBC News website about the reinstatement of a grave to commemorate a Bullfinch that could sing the national anthem. The story reminds me that it was quite common for Bullfinches to be trained to sing tunes, and song books and special pipes called ‘bird flageolets’ were even produced with this purpose in mind. Bullfinches are not particularly noted for their singing, which is very quiet and unobtrusive, but they’re very good at learning songs, something that was appreciated by 18th and 19th century bird keepers. In Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey’s wonderful book Birds Britannica they quote a letter that Lord Chesterfield sent to his son in 1740:
Bullfinches, you must know, have no natural note of their own, and never sing, unless taught; but will learn tunes better than any other birds. This they do by attention and memory; and you may observe, that, while they are taught, they listen with great care, and never jump about and kick their heels (Cocker & Mabey 2005: 456)
This view that only man could provide Bullfinches with their song is echoed in Lady Lawton’s poem to her beloved Bullie:
God gave thee thine beauty, man gave thee thy song.
Such perfection combined do few bullies belong.
But Bullfinches do have a song, and it’s actually rather complex and varies a great deal between individuals. The father of modern avian bioacoustics W.H. Thorpe (1961: 87) argued that Bullfinches are so skilled at learning different songs because individual variation is critical to the function of singing in Bullfinches. Bullfinches pair for life and their singing, Thorpe argued, is more concerned with pair bonding and coordinating the timing of breeding than with territoriality. It follows from this that greater flexibility in song facilitates individual recognition, which is useful for pair bonding but less useful for intra-specific territoriality. One presumes then that Lady Lawton’s Bullfinch sang ‘God save the Queen’ as a result of its training rather than patriotic fervour.
Cocker, M. & Mabey, R. 2005 Birds Britannica London: Chatto & Windus
Thorpe, W.H. 1961 Bird-song; the biology of vocal communication and expression in birds Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
December 9, 2007
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recently launched a new Bird Atlas project for the UK and Ireland. The new atlas will map different bird species and will rely largely on volunteers to carry out survey work. One of the main ways in which the surveying for the atlas is done is through Timed Tetrad Visits (TTVs). Each volunteer is assigned various ‘tetrads’, which are 2×2 km squares. They then make four timed one or two hour visits to the tetrad in winter and summer and count the birds they see and hear.
Last weekend I did my first TTVs in two tetrads along the lower reaches of the River Don in Aberdeen. Doing the survey involves using ears as much as eyes, and I became very conscious that my hearing skills were being tested to a much great degree than during ‘normal’ birding. Most times when I go birding, I’m looking and listening for birds that are out of the ordinary in some way or another. An effect of this is that I tend to filter out the commoner birds, wonderful though they are. It’s not so much that I don’t hear these commoner birds, it’s that I sometimes don’t register hearing them; I don’t consciously tell myself what I can hear. This is a kind of ‘unconscious identification’ that is probably important in all sorts of areas of perception. We perhaps only realise we’re doing it when we suddenly find what we were unconsciously listening out for - by hearing something different, we realise we were listening all the time.
But surveying for the atlas requires that every bird, heard or seen, is registered not just consciously but in pen and ink on the pages of a notepad. Last weekend I found it surprisingly hard work to spend four hours registering and attempting to identify every bird I found. There aren’t too many birds singing at the moment here in Aberdeen, aside from lots of Robins and a few Wrens, but there were lots of subtle calls that tested my skill at identifying common vocalisations to the full. I realised how hard it can be to distinguish between the calls of various tits, most of which give some rather similar high pitched twittering calls, as well as a few more distinctive sounds. Knowing whether a call was a great tit or blue tit could sometimes be a challenge. Likewise song thrush and robin both give some rather soft contact calls that can sound rather similar. Could I tell the difference? Sometimes the answer was no.
So if you’re doing atlas work in the UK and Ireland at the moment, or if you’re doing some other kind of bird surveying, I’d be interested in hearing about the role that listening plays in the survey work and about how you think surveying influences your listening skills.
December 6, 2007
I’m slowly working my way through the 600 or so emails and contributions I’ve had in the past week, so apologies again if I’ve not replied to you yet. Be patient, particularly if you had a specific enquiry!
One of the contributions that I particularly enjoyed came from Neil Horne in Sydney, Australia. He’s an artist who works with computers and he’s designed some interactive java software that enables different bird sounds to be combined into a composition. You can use the ‘Sky Music’ programme here. Neil makes some interesting observations about the different responses to the programme:
Our approach is from the perspective of the aesthetics of bird calls… Birders hear birds differently. When the composing software was trialled by birders, they were reluctant to combine sounds and rhythms, but were more interested in identifying birds. They could only hear it as a quiz. Computer specialists on the other hand with a music background were happy to compose. Where we recorded the black cockatoos, there were people sitting at picnic tables talking who did not hear the amazing performance, or behaved as if they didn’t.
Although I’m a birder myself, I didn’t see it so much as a quiz because I’m unfamiliar with the sounds of eastern Australian birds. Instead I was able to play around with the sounds and rhythms. It’s quite a different way to think about and to hear the vocalisations of birds. It helped me to understand what Juana Molina means by the different loops of sound made by duetting birds combining in different ways despite repetition. Have a go at playing two different recordings together and see how the sound changes as it goes on. Thanks to Neil for letting me know about his work.
December 5, 2007
The British Library has released a CD of Madagascan bird sounds. You can hear some of these beautiful and startling recordings on the BBC website and at the British Library page. It’s perhaps not surprising that these birds sound so different to anything else when many belong to families unique to the island.