by Tom Leskiw
“If you listen to the thrush and hear a thrush, you've not
Bird vocalizations—songs and calls that herald their presence—have always mattered and always will.
Long before recorded history, hunters pursued birds for sustenance. The flocks’ ceaseless chatter betrayed their location. The most skilled hunters learned to imitate bird sounds to draw the winged ones toward them. Adding a voice inflection that suggested that “the bird” was wounded or perhaps a fledgling that had become separated from its parents helped hasten the arrival of the flock—or perhaps the birds’ predators in search of an easy meal.
Today, when intrigued by birdsong, our genetic memory may recognize something overlooked by our conscious mind. As Jean-Michael Cousteau writes, “With our eyes closed, we break free of two-dimensional thought, and become aware of nature in depth, to the sides and behind us, over our heads and even beneath our feet. A sound gives us more than a sensation of place—it triggers feelings of excitement or fear, commands our attention, awakens memories, makes us instantly and completely alert. When we listen to the sounds of nature, we are communicating with our aboriginal past on a level we may not entirely understand. It can be exhilarating or disturbing, but it never fails to touch us deeply.”
The ancient Persians based their first calendar on avian comings and goings. Throughout Europe, the distinctive song of the cuckoo—of clock fame—signaled that it had returned from wintering in Africa. The birds’ presence was immortalized in the earliest ballad in the English language: “Sing cucu, nu. Sing cucu, /Summer is i-cumen in.”
Music created by humans did not suddenly spring forth from a soundless void: insects, frogs, birds—even the wind as it passed through a reed-dotted wetland—furnished inspiration. Through intuition, and in some cases, oral histories, we know this to be true. In the 1980s, acoustic engineer Bernie Krause, who has traveled the globe recording natural sounds, documented how the Jivaro—residents of the Amazon rainforest—mimic and incorporate the sounds of insects, frogs, and birds into their music.
To the human ear, bird vocalizations span the spectrum from melodious to ominous. The bittern’s penetrating, startling song precipitated a plethora of legends and folktales. Its unique timbre has been interpreted to mean doom and desolation, leading to the prophesies in books of Isaiah and Zephaniah that Babylon and Nineveh were fated to become a wasteland, with the bittern’s cry echoing in the ruins of their palaces.
For many bird species, the weeks leading up to the vernal equinox serve as the fulcrum upon which their lives pivot. Responding to increasing day length, they undergo hormonal changes: acquiring colorful plumage and the urge to return to their breeding grounds. The arrival of daylight hours that equal those of starlight catapults them northward, their songs and calls resounding through wetland, forest, and field of the northern latitudes. In some species, both sexes sing elaborate songs—duets—in courtship or to maintain the pair bond. In a broader sense, bird vocalizations serve to maintain the bond between species, for those of us who care to listen.
Many species migrate at night to avoid predation. Scientists have cobbled together a modest network to record this nocturnal passage. They’ve learned that each call is unique to a species. Using software to analyze and interpret the results, call notes can serve as early warning indicators in the decline of a species. At least one of the pioneering sound engineers in this field used to point his microphones on the Grateful Dead at concerts, underscoring the link between seemingly disparate forms of music.
The benefits of technology are many, but they have come with a price. As we lead lives that are increasingly regulated, urbanized, and climate-controlled, birds remind us that we can participate in cycles that reach far beyond ourselves. Insistent, the birds call to us. Stepping outside at night during the spring or fall, to bask in this overhead passage, is a refreshing tonic that can serve as an antidote to feelings of disconnection and disharmony. Taking time to heed the bird-pulse of migration is more important than ever, impressing upon us that there are lessons to be learned, affairs in the nonhuman world worthy of our curiosity and passion. Bernie Krause writes, “In the end—before the forest echoes die—we may want to listen carefully to this world, to discover that we aren’t separate, but a vital part of one fragile biological place.”
Throughout history, birds have been our allies, often serving as central figures in a culture’s myths and fables. Paul Shepard writes in The Others, “By observing the musical metaphor and animal dances of other cultures we see how widespread they are in linking people to each other and to the natural and invisible worlds. Animals are understood to have been the first musicians, halfway figures, mediators, like us yet themselves.” Interacting with other creatures, immersing ourselves if only for a short time in their conversations, encourages us to consider issues beyond those of self-interest. This moving beyond introversion aids us in shaping and re-examining what it means to be human, expanding our role within culture to include our place within the natural community.
“The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Andersen chronicles how an emperor deems the song of a living bird inferior to that of a mechanical imitation. Predictably, the expensive, gilded toy breaks, leaving the emperor heartbroken and deathly ill. The real nightingale, upon hearing of the emperor’s impending death, returns to sing him back to health. The bird makes clear that it is unable to nest in the emperor’s palace, but will come in the evening and sing and bring news of how the commoners within the kingdom are faring. This fable speaks to the age-old bond between man and bird, of how our insular lives can be enriched and healed by embracing the real, rather than the artificial.
Of all the gifts given to us by birds, perhaps none has proved as valuable for the health and well-being of ourselves and the planet as their declining populations following the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides that started in the late 1940s. Through bioaccumulation, birds at the top of the food chain—that fed on poisoned fish, insects and, other birds—stored ever-increasing amounts of toxins. Falcons, osprey, hawks, songbirds—even our national bird, the bald eagle—declined precipitously. Scientists discovered that compounds in pesticides such as DDT disrupted birds’ ability to absorb calcium. Shells thinned and incubating birds crushed the eggs beneath them.
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson prompted us to envision a diminished world, where the annual re-birth of the planet was no longer heralded by birdsong. Her clarion call to protect the environment, and ultimately the human race, from such abuses, was published in 1962. Regarded by many as the seminal environmental treatise of the past half-century, Silent Spring ushered in the decade of the 1970s that brought passage of the Clean Water, National Environmental Policy, and Endangered Species Acts, plus the celebration of the first Earth Day. Using bird populations as a metric for planetary health, we came to see that everything is connected, and that declines in bird health and populations would presage harm to our own. Perhaps even more important, Carson’s willingness to learn about dangers of pesticides—contamination of the food chain, cancer, genetic damage—and her courage to take on the pesticide industry created the template employed by future environmental activists.
In the 1980s birds again widened their “canary-in-a-coal mine” function. Ornithologists noted a decline in neotropical migrant birds—those that breed in the northern hemisphere and winter to the south—concurrent with the rapid destruction of South American habitat that included the Amazon rainforest. Although the factors for their decline are complex—and include habitat alteration here at “home”—migrant birds enabled us to envision the interconnectedness between the two hemispheres as never before. Birds were the catalyst for adding words like “biodiversity” to the popular lexicon, while serving as the most-visible icon for the emerging “Act Local, Think Global” philosophy.
Our kinship with birds—and the genetic memory triggered by their song—is so acute that it can transcend the horror of war. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell writes about the British experience during World War I: “Morning and evening stand-to’s [short breaks in the fighting] were the occasions when the sky especially offered itself for observation and interpretation… The one [larks] now became associated with stand-to at dawn, the other [nightingales] with stand-to at evening… What the lark usually betokens is that one has got safely through another night, a night made poignantly ironic by the singing of the nightingales.”
In 2004, Sergeant Jonathan Trouern-Trend of the Connecticut National Guard began a year’s deployment in Iraq. A birder since the age of 12, he began a blog that chronicled birds seen during his time there. He writes, “Out in the desert I watched a crested lark hovering about a hundred feet off the ground, singing its heart out. The amazing thing is that it kept it up for almost 10 minutes, slowly drifting in its hover. Finally it came flying down and rested on the ground near me.”
That birds can furnish a respite from the misery of war testifies to their ability to command our attention. Trouern-Trend continues, “When I started my online journal Birding Babylon, shortly after arriving, I got significantly more response than expected. In retrospect it should have been no surprise. Most people’s view of life in Iraq focuses on the chaos and violence of war. … Knowing that the great cycles of nature continue despite what people happen to be doing is reassuring, I think. There is an order we can take comfort in and draw strength from.”
Bird song and flight gave seers and shamans news of the will of the gods. They have and will continue to serve as augurs, as omens. In some cases, science has come to support the wisdom embodied in folk tales. Research has confirmed that American robins, considered harbingers of spring in the northern
Regardless of birds’ ability to feed, entertain, warn, inspire, or keep us on schedule, we have an innate need to interact with them, as their presence is linked to grander cycles. As Trouern-Trend writes in his final blog entry from Iraq, “Today I spent an hour watching Libyan jirds, a kind of large gerbil that lives in the dunes…. As I walked over the jirds’ dunes, I saw a pure white dove circle over the camp. I’ll take it as a good omen.”
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