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.