The strange soundtrack of home

“Suddenly, subtle variations in the tone and rhythm of that whistling phrase seem laden with expressive intention, and the two birds singing to each other across the field appear for the first time as attentive, conscious beings, earnestly engaged in the same world that we ourselves engage, yet from an astonishingly different angle and perspective.”
David Abrams (see extended quote at end of post)

Living out here in the woods as I do, it’s sometimes easy for me to forget just how strange I’ve become. I read the above quote and thought, “What does he mean, ‘for the first time’? Doesn’t everybody hear bird songs that way?” But apparently most people’s first reaction is to think of birds as pre-programmed music boxes – when they hear them at all. Many folks, of course, don’t have the luxury of waking up and falling asleep to the songs of birds as I do (although there is an interstate highway right over the ridge, and it can be pretty loud sometimes). I guess it also helps that I spent my teenage years listening to 20th-century and avant-garde classical music, which was probably pretty good preparation for appreciating natural sound. The really weird thing is that I used to be a total music junkie, but over the last several years, without ever consciously intending to I’ve become so attuned to natural sounds that I find it difficult even to listen to recorded music for longer than a half-hour at a stretch.

For a fan of natural soundscapes, the months of May and June represent the year’s musical climax. Many mornings I’ll forgo an extra hour of sleep just so I can be out on the porch by first light. The dawn chorus begins a few minutes after 5:00 with the first tentative calls from song sparrow, titmouse and cardinal – the same birds that anchor the avian chorus in January. Almost immediately, however, a wood thrush tunes up, joined by a great-crested flycatcher and a common yellowthroat. Over the next two hours, these calls will be blended with a number of others: phoebe, red-bellied woodpecker, field sparrow, catbird, red-eyed vireo, Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager, towhee, pileated woodpecker. A background of more-or-less continual chips and buzzes from chipping sparrow, worm-eating warbler and other more distant, interior forest species such as the cerulean warbler and ovenbird, makes up a sort of sonic horizon or drone effect.

But it’s the wood thrush’s song that, for me, provides the main focus of musical interest. Though less ethereal than the call of its close cousin the hermit thrush, the wood thrush’s song is variable enough to hold my attention for many hundreds of bars. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website – which include a wav file of the sound recording – describes it as follows:

Wood Thrushes are justly famous for their beautiful flute-like voices that may combine two notes at one time. The song is composed of three distinct parts. The first, often inaudible unless the listener is close, consists of two to six short low-pitched notes such as bup, bup, bup. The middle part is a loud phrase often written ee-oh-lay, and the final part is a sometimes ventriloquial, trill-like phrase made up of nonharmonic pairs of notes given quite rapidly and simultaneously. Each bird has a repertoire of songs based on combinations of variations of the three parts, and the songs are often repeated in order. The bup, bup, bup phrase is also heard as a call, which is given louder and at a greater frequency when the bird is agitated.

I’m not sure I agree with the cliched comparison to a flute. What they call the second and third parts combine woodwind and bell-like qualities. Setting aside the introduction and considering the rest of the song as one unit, I particularly admire the way the thrush modifies the bittersweetness of the main melodic lines with a shifting array of grace notes. These strike me as more light-hearted afterthoughts. A rough translation of thrush song might be something like, “The world can break your heart, you know. Drink up!”

We are blessed with the presence of this archetypal Neotropical migrant for barely three months of the year. Like the scarlet tanager and the cerulean warbler, its population has been steadily declining in recent years, due mainly to the loss and fragmentation of suitable nesting habitat by roads, highways and suburban and exurban sprawl. Last year, especially, thrush numbers seemed to be down here in Plummer’s Hollow, but this year they appear to have rebounded – at least around the houses. The old tenant house where I live apparently straddles the border between territories of two male thrushes, which means that I always have one if not both singers well within earshot.

*

It was bioacoustician Bernie Krause who first documented the existence and integrity of natural soundscapes, which he likens to symphonic compositions. (I prefer to think of them more as jazz improvisations, given that neither a composer nor a conductor is in evidence.) Krause discovered through studying sonograms that every song or call occupies a distinct aural niche. He hypothesizes that, as part of their adaptations to (and alterations of) specific habitats, species adjust their calls so as to complement rather than to compete with the calls of other species. This seems highly plausible, especially where passerines are concerned, since there is such a high degree of flexibility in the way they learn and transmit calls. As Krause and other birdsong collectors have found, calls can vary considerably within a species, displaying not only regional and local ‘dialects,’ but individual signatures as well. (The better part of these differences will be inaudible to humans.) One can easily imagine subtle shifts in songs as new aural niches open or close due to slow, bioregional shifts in ecosystem composition.

My friend the Sylph e-mailed late last week with a query about the mockingbird that had kept her awake the night before. (I’m not quite sure why listening to the mockingbird go on and on and on prompted her to think of me!) “What’s the source of their ‘creativity’?” she asked. “Do they remember songs of other creatures? Or are they just wired to improvise or mimic? The various riffs were in mostly threes and twos and the songs were not just of other birds but also frogs. So what’s up with the mockingbird?”

I said it’s uncertain how and whether creativity is “wired,” for mockingbirds as for other sentient species (including humans). There’s little doubt that some birds possess good memories – far better than humans, in fact. Although a few scientists do still believe that episodic memory is unique to humans, behavioral experiments with seed caching species such as Western scrub jays “show evidence in birds of mental time travel both backward and forward,” as Science News reported back in February. (Susan Milius, “Where’d I Put That? Maybe it Takes a Bird Brain to Find the Car Keys,” Vol. 165, 103-105.)

As for mimicry, the term itself carries unwarranted connotations of mechanical imitation, denying the considerable role of intelligence in shaping the calls of highly innovative species such as mockingbirds, catbirds and brown thrashers. And if we accept recent findings about mimicry, it seems to me that almost all passerines may be considered mimics to one degree or another. That is to say, everything they sing has been learned, not simply inherited, though it’s true that most seem predisposed to learn the songs of their own species. One set of experiments with juvenile white-crowned sparrows showed that they will learn the songs of whichever species they are caged with, which included tutors from a quite distantly related, Asian species, the red avadavit (yes, that’s really its name!). One of the birds most prized for its ability to mimic human speech in captivity, the hill mynah, doesn’t imitate other species in the wild at all. However, its calls do display distinct variations in dialect over quite short distances, which leads me to suspect that its extreme vocal flexibility represents an adaptation to a highly variable native soundscape.

Other experiments have substantiated fears about the effects of anthropogenic noise on birdsong transmission. The harmful “edge effects” of the interstate on the other side of the ridge from me include not only increased depredations of edge-dwelling predators, but severe impairment of avian soundscapes, as well. For many songbirds – especially interior forest specialists with relatively quiet calls – highway noise can disrupt courtship and territorial singing for hundreds of yards in either direction. And even when courtship and breeding are successful, researchers have discovered, quite often the young adults can’t properly learn their species’ songs. Birds raised near highways may be unable to defend a territory or attract a mate, because their songs are too incomplete – or may be missing altogether.

*

The Acoustic Ecology Institute website archives a number of great essays on soundscapes. (However, the site evidently hasn’t been updated for some time; it contains a few broken links.) I’ll close with a fairly lengthy selection from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (Pantheon Books, 1996) – an excellent read, by the way. According to Abrams, human beings are mimics par excellance.

Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, and nostrils–all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness. This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streams–these breathing shapes are our family, the beings with whom we are engaged, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate.

For the largest part of our species’ existence, humans have negotiated relationships with every aspect of the sensuous surroundings, exchanging possibilities with every flapping form, with each textured surface and shivering entity that we happened to focus on. All could speak, articulating in gesture and whistle and sigh a shifting web of meanings that we felt on our skin or inhaled through our nostrils or focused with our listening ears, and to which we replied–whether with sounds, or through movements or minute shifts of mood. The color of sky, the rush of waves–every aspect of the earthly sensuous could draw us into a relationship fed with curiosity and spiced with danger. Every sound was a voice, every scrape or blunder was a meeting–with Thunder, with Oak, with Dragonfly. And from all of these relationships our collective sensibilities were nourished.

Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape. We still need that which is other than ourselves and our own creations. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human. . . . We need to know the textures, the rhythms and tastes of the bodily world, and to distinguish readily between such tastes and those of our own invention. Direct sensuous reality, in all its more-than-human mystery, remains the sole solid touchstone for an experiential world now inundated with electronically-generated vistas and engineered pleasures; only in regular contact with the tangible ground and sky can we learn how to orient and to navigate in the multiple dimensions that now claim us. . . .

If we listen, first, to the sounds of an oral language–to the rhythms, tones, and inflections that play through the speech of an oral culture–we will likely find that these elements are attuned, in multiple and subtle ways, to the contour and scale of the local landscape, to the depth of its valleys or the open stretch of its distances, to the visual rhythms of the local topography. But the human speaking is necessarily tuned, as well, to the various non-human calls and soundings that animate the local terrain. Such attunement is simply imperative for any culture still dependent upon foraging for its subsistence. Minute alterations in the weather, changes in the migratory patterns of prey animals, a subtle shift in the focus of a predator–sensitivity to such subtleties is inevitably reflected not just in the content but in the very shapes and patterns of human discourse.

The native hunter, in effect, must apprentice himself to those animals that he would kill. Through long and careful observation, enhanced at times by ritual identification and mimesis, the hunter gradually develops an instinctive knowledge of the habits of his prey, of its fears and its pleasures, its preferred foods and favored haunts. Nothing is more integral to this practice than learning the communicative signs, gestures, and cries of the local animals. Knowledge of the sounds by which a monkey indicates to the others in its band that it has located a good source of food, or the cries by which a particular bird signals distress, or by which another attracts a mate, enables the hunter to anticipate both the large-scale and small-scale movements of various animals. A familiarity with animal calls and cries provides the hunter, as well, with an expanded set of senses, an awareness of events happening beyond his field of vision, hidden by the forest leaves or obscured by the dark of night. Moreover, the skilled human hunter often can generate and mimic such sounds himself, and it is this that enables him to enter most directly into the society of other animals. . . .

If one comes upon two friends unexpectedly meeting for the first time in many months, and one chances to hear their initial words of surprise, greeting, and pleasure, one may readily notice a tonal, melodic layer of communication beneath the explicit meaning of the words–a rippling rise and fall of the voices in a sort of musical duet, rather like two birds singing to each other. Each voice, each side of the duet, mimes a bit of the other’s melody while adding its own inflection and style, and then is echoed by the other in turn–the two singing bodies thus tuning and attuning to one another, rediscovering a common register, remembering each other. It requires only a slight shift in focus to realize that this melodic singing is carrying the bulk of communication in this encounter, and that the explicit meanings of the actual words ride on the surface of this depth like waves on the surface of the sea.

It is by a complementary shift of attention that one may suddenly come to hear the familiar song of a blackbird or a thrush in a surprisingly new manner–not just as a pleasant melody repeated mechanically, but as active, meaningful speech. Suddenly, subtle variations in the tone and rhythm of that whistling phrase seem laden with expressive intention, and the two birds singing to each other across the field appear for the first time as attentive, conscious beings, earnestly engaged in the same world that we ourselves engage, yet from an astonishingly different angle and perspective. . . .

From such reflections we may begin to suspect that the complexity of human language is related to the complexity of the earthly ecology–not to any complexity of our species considered apart from that matrix. Language, writes Merleau-Ponty, “is the very voice of the trees, the waves, and the forests.”

As technological civilization diminishes the biotic diversity of the earth, language itself is diminished. As there are fewer and fewer songbirds in the air, due to the destruction of their forests and wetlands, human speech loses more and more of its evocative power. For when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing speech of the rivers is silenced by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land’s wild voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied of their earthly resonance.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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