Focus; Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song
In the first hour today the question we'll be discussing is this Why do birds sing. Now if you ask that of a scientist who studies birds he may well he or she may well give you a pretty straightforward answer at least to start because we know that birds sing to attract mates. They sing as a way of defending their territory. And while that's all true our guest for this hour of focus 580 David Rothenberg says that that is an incomplete explanation because he argues that you can see birds singing after they have mated and you can see and hear birds singing when there aren't any intruders or any competitors around and above and beyond that he would argue that the quality of birdsong. It's it's more than it needs to be to do those jobs. Which leads him to the conclusion that birds sing for the same reason that human beings make music because they like it because of the pure joy of seeing the song. You can find some of these ideas in his recent book why birds sing a journey into
the mystery of birdsong It's published by Basic Books and we'll talk this morning about what you will find in that book. Let me give you a little bit more background on our guest David Rothenberg He's a composer and clarinetist who is known for bringing together improvisation by human musicians with the sounds of nature. He is also a philosopher and writer in addition to the book that I have mentioned why Byrd saying he's authored a number of others. The most recent titled sudden music improvisation art nature that book came out in 2000 and two He's also editor of the Terra Nova book series published by MIT Press. Looking at environmental issues as culture not just policy. He's done writing in this appeared in other sorts of places. He's also associate professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and he's joining us this morning by telephone. And as we talk questions from people who are listening are certainly welcome we like to involve you in the conversation the only thing we ask of callers is that people just try to be brief and we ask that so that we can accommodate as many as possible and keep the program moving but anybody who is listening
can call here in Champaign-Urbana 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 we also have a toll free line that's good anywhere that you can hear us. And that is 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5 so at any point here if you'd like to join us you can do that. Mr. Rothenberg Hello. Hello how are you. I'm fine thanks and yourself. I'm fine. We appreciate you giving us some of your time today. Sure. I hope you're not too tired of talking about this subject now I know I know you were no long book tour and you did. We're going to say OK good very good. Maybe as a way of starting let me ask this question. We know that that many different animals use sound to communicate. They have various kinds of calls and signals that they use to attract one another to alert one another to threats and and so forth. But then there are among all those animals that use sound to communicate there are a relatively small number that do something that is recognizable to us
or are we might argue is music and certainly birds are among them. What is it that makes a bird song different from the kinds of communicative sounds that other animals might utter. Well the first thing that's different is that birds learn to sing. They're not born with the ability to sing they have to learn. They usually learn by hearing grown up birds singing sometimes their pet. Parents sometimes others that they get a model of what they should learn to do. It takes them anywhere from several months to many years to learn to sing the proper song. Now if you look at all the whole animal world there's very few animals that can learn to make sound. What scientists call vocal learning. You know other primates can do it except human beings chimpanzees can't learn to make sound dogs and cats can't officially learn to make sounds. They just make what they're born the ability to make only songbirds human beings and
whales and dolphins can learn to make sound. What all those disparate animals have in common. You know no one's quite sure that's the first thing that's unique about them. But then you listen to the actual sounds that birds are making is often long sometimes short sounds that people for thousands of years have called Songs That heard something musical in that. And I don't think it's accidental that these sounds appear musical to our years. I also think important thing to realize is they are not conveying specific information contained like in the syntax and it's not the sound do not have a specific no. Since you're getting across a birds make other sounds that do bird call birds make alarm calls. Sometimes they make specific alarm calls a bunch of bird species make exactly the same sound only when a hawk flies overhead. Otherwise they make a different alarm sound. The cats walking by or something. Those are specific messages but what's the message in a mocking bird song that goes on for an hour at a time or even
just a short sound of a warbler singing the message isn't so clear. The song serves this function as you mentioned. You know it's supposed to attract mates or to defend territory. But why is birds doing this with this kind of musical sounding phrase that doesn't convey specific information. We're not quite sure why but I think that if you start to listen to the song listen to what birds sing and it has a lot in common with music it has more in common with human music than it does with human language. I mentioned the beginning of the program that you have for for a long time had this interest of combining music the music that you would make and other musicians would make with the sounds of nature in some cases there are not sounds that are made by any living thing. In the case of birds and we have your CD why birds sing that we will play a little bit of so we give people a chance to hear what we're talking about so you won't just have to try to describe it. And they too imagine we can actually play it for them. But how would how did you get
interested in this idea of actually playing music with birds. Well with this particular project you know my friend the artist Michael pestilent Pittsburgh invited me to go to the national aviary. That's over there and play along with the bird something he'd been doing for years. And as I walked around with my clarinet through the aviary one particular bird really seemed to respond to what I was doing it really surprised me. That was a white crested laughing thrush a bird from Southeast Asia and this bird really seemed to interact with the exact melodies I was playing. And I said what what's going on. Can it happen after the birds have their set songs that they just saying one way and that got me interested in reading and learning about this whole story. And that's when I found out that actually the science of birdsong is much more tentative than I thought. Science must be so careful and so exact to make any kind of conclusions actually. Science wasn't all that sure about why birds are doing what they're doing because it's. So hard to test.
And then I began to be interested in ways in which science and music might be combined to make sense of it. And I realized that although science and music say very different things about bird songs they can fit together and support each other in interesting ways. Well I want to I want to play a cut from the CD why birds sing so people can hear this encounter between you and this particular bird the white crested laughing thrush. Why don't we do that. OK. This is cut a cut number nine right now on this CD. Yes. Yes.
And there you have it in case you've just joined us that's our guest for the show this morning David Rothenberg clarinetist and composer playing along with the white crested laughing thrash and this was recorded at the National aviary in Pittsburgh in March of 2000 from his CD why birds sing. And that goes along with his book why birds sing a journey into the mystery of birdsong. And that book is published by Basic Books. It is in bookstores now if you would like to read it. And as I said David Rothenberg our guest he's composer clarinetist also author and philosopher. He is an associate professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Now if you want if you want to get that CD you know at present sold separately. You have to get it from why Bird saying dot com will run and various you know online places but I believe a year from now the paperback is going to have the CD in it. Very different to figure that out. When it's real it is. It is nice as I say it's nice to have that because you describe this encounter in the
book but they use you this way you can actually hear what it sounds like and hear the interaction between you and them makes more sense. Yeah maybe it makes sense maybe to make sense that every time I hear it it sounds very different. I think about it in a different way and I'm not sure it's because I've read more about laughing thrushes or it's because I'm hearing something else going on. Well let's talk about the interaction between you and the bird and what you think about what we don't know what the bird was thinking about but what you were thinking about was going on there and whether in fact you think that the bird was really responding to the music that you were putting out and that there really was a kind of a duet an improv improvised duet going on. Well I explained to you the evolution of my thought on this. When I was there I had no idea what's going on. That's it. This bird is really responding in an interesting way and at the time I said well he either is competing with me because he's defending his territory or he's you know trying to find a mate because he was all alone in this cage and maybe he was
you know thinking I might have something to do with that. And then later I read about them. I learned that although very little is written on this bird you know it's quite common in Asia. They use sound in a complex social way like most birds don't. But some species do. And that both the males and females sing. And it's believed they use sound it for more complicated reasons than those two popular ones they use it more to establish constant contact through the underbrush and identify where they are members of a group and such. So he's a bird more used to playing along with similar sounds. And I think like many birds he particularly responded certain you know rhythmic shapes and patterns of military as well as the sound quality that's like what he's used to. And because this guy was so alone he probably hadn't heard this for a long time. The last time I went back there there was a male and female and they were both singing along. And I guess what this says is that you know the more I've learned about this you know every species just so different from every other flip every bird species in something that
Darwin actually realized that since Darwin many evolutionary biologists have forgotten about it. You know he rode in the descent of man that birds have a natural aesthetic sense. Each species has a certain kind of thing that they like. That's what Darwin said. He totally could accept this approach. He said this is why birds have you know beautiful plumage and feathers when they sing beautiful songs. Each species has its own sense of what they think is beautiful. Sometimes it overlaps with what we like. Other times it doesn't. I guess some people would would ask the question though it is really if you talk about something like that let's just say. The songs that they have a sense of of what is beautiful one might also make the argument that well what is they do. Is there a boundaries they can't. The birds can't sing just anything and while there may be interaction with other birds and there are birds clearly that we know that appropriate little bits of the songs of other birds and make them their own and while the songs are complex and have to be learned there are specific songs that specific birds do sing and it's not as if
they could sing anything. Well it's interesting you take a bird like the Bullfinch Finch in Europe and very common small Finch in the wild. All it does is go you make this little squeaky sound. The people raise them in captivity they discovered this bird could whistle back right away could sing back just about any tune you whistle to him. How could this be in the wild they never do anything like that. They have this ability that they never actually used it for more than several hundred years there were academies teaching bullfinches to sing in Europe particularly in Germany because this became such a fashion. But in the wild they don't do anything like that at all. So what this shows is it's many birds have abilities that they can do that in their normal life they don't do so in some senses birds are capable of much more than they're supposed to do or usually do and but it is at the same time true what you said the most birds make do fine with a very specific defined song. And that's part of
their aesthetic as well I would say and Darwin would agree with me. Yeah birds and but what is what is not efficient What is not necessary or entirely comfortable in a mechanistic view is the fact that that is what they're actually singing. You know it's not the simple most fit most sane thing to do. What birds spend their time doing. In nature it's not just survival of the fittest in this grand efficient machine evolution has produced very odd things and the big question which biology can't really answer is did it happen sort of randomly. This is just a random result of more efficient purposes going on or is it or is it this actually and a headache that has some deeper meaning than just accidentally coming up. That's you nobody knows the answer to that. Well it certainly does go back to the. The fact that you talked about a little bit at the beginning the fact that that birds in the kind of music they make it's very different than other animals and their capability to produce sound that is few.
As you said few animals can learn to make sounds progress. Our closest relatives the primates can't do it. But songbirds can do it. Human beings can whales and dolphins can raises the question well why them why. Why not more. And why specifically them. You have had some scientists say to me that you know evolution must select against vocal learning. You must be more efficient not to have it. You know it's a good thing not to have in general. That's why so few animals have it. But why do those few animals have it. You know it enables other ways of living together and communicating etc. but it's clearly not the easiest way to go. There are primates that sing of course they're given that saying in these you know which are kind of lean were but they they are born with the ability to make those sounds. You can't teach them something else. I particularly you mentioned just as kind of as a. As a side story I think it's particularly interesting this idea that there was a time when people made a business out of it was a
fashion to teach birds to saying and that there were. Do I have this right that people actually composed music for birds to be taught to bro yes the famous the famous book that you can still use to learn to play the recorder in school at least in Australia everyone seemed to know about it. They learn from this book the bird fanciers do like little tunes to teach the birds to sing and they're not tunes they're particularly close to what the birds sing. But it's a good idea in any case and then I also learned that the word recording like in tape recorder that it what it first meant was you know to learn a tune. You've got to record it when you learn to sing and it was early early on used the idea of teaching birds to sing. You got to get these birds to record and that's why the instruments called the recorder because it was so often used to teach birds sing pretty hard to believe as well. Makes a good story again. You know a few people have written it down. Nowhere. You know what I always wondered actually. I think you know playing the recorder why it's called a recorder
and there's also a tape recorder I'd wondered about that when I was 8 years old learned to play the recorder. How come the words was the same nobody seemed to know. But it's definitely true that people have listened to birds thought their sounds were musical enjoyed the sounds played around with them and really been touched by them for thousands of years. There's evidence and people still are today we're not quite sure what to say about it. And I think people too often stop wondering they say oh I know what this is for so I'm not going to say anything more about it or they say oh I know that's a robin. They stop listening to it. Yeah. Stead of wondering what exactly is he doing. Why is it put together this way not that way. It's a whole world of interesting things you can hear just in your backyard. Let us we have a couple callers here let's talk with them. Right let's start with our caller on line number 1 in Champaign. Hello. Same subject I want you to help me with something I've often wondered about investment records to the extent that the Seems to be part of what
we're talking about the extent to what extent are they make choices and are they conscious of being your choice you know like I say Robert I mean they actually I mean not just maybe you are just that you that's an excellent question. Thank you for that you know you're saying do they make choices and they decide what to sing next. What's stunning and thing next Are they conscious of what's going on. So there's a lot of people who say well we're never going to know how conscious they are you can't get inside the mind of the bird that way. We don't know what they're exactly aware of others say oh we can figure out how to stick little electrodes in the brain and figure out what they're aware of and. But in terms of making choices you know people fed investigated different ways to look at you know how do you decide what song comes next. It definitely seems that whether conscious or not birds do not sing randomly if they're singing a complex song like a Mockingbird there's a real structure to it. That's a real order there's a real design to the long songs a mocking bird or a
robin or if even the starling. Now are they aware of this. That's much harder to know about. But there certainly is a sense of order and plan that you can you know demonstrate by mathematically you could look at the probabilities What's the chance of this phrase going to come next. Some people use that approach others would think the musical approach and say well listen to how this is shaped together listen to how these decisions that the birds made either consciously or unconsciously end up with this song that has a certain beginning middle and end. Two different approaches to that with the question of consciousness there can't be consciousness and ego consciousness. How will you know this is something that people argue about that you know there's enough people who think that even human beings don't have consciousness that we're just making all these little decisions and no one really in charge. So the same arguments have to do with birds you know brain scientist really like slicing open bird brains and looking at what's happening there and they've identified all kinds of specific things going on this pathway fires up when this sound is made when the sound is heard all the stuff has been identified but you can't find
consciousness that way. No one's ever found consciousness by saying oh it's here. And it goes and we've seen that kind of thing it's just as hard. Excellent. Thanks for going far. Let's go to Atlanta. You know I toll free line one for Hello. Good morning thanks for the conversation. One negative aspect of it. We live in and next to a nature preserve and probably have about 100 species of birds visit here every year and at you know DAYBREAK with the windows open that can be really an A an awakening thing you just can't believe all the different bird calls that are going on in that time. But something to reinforce some of the things that you said we have a real large feeding station that these these those of all at the back of the House and for the last several years we've had a down e-mail and I don't know whether it's always the same down e-mail but I'm assuming that is that everyone saw throughout the day helped fly up to the pole which in he'll fly down the pole they'll fly back up to the top of the pole and he will fly down like he's having fun and he won't eat he'll just pretty soon get tired of the game and fly off shelves and
kind of answer to the other question maybe there is some conscious behavior. Birds do and you know they like to have fun which includes the singing aspect that you talked about and I'll just have to ride through that and I'll just hang out. Thanks thanks a lot. So you talk about a downy woodpecker winding down of sliding down a metal pole I guess. Pretty fun I could imagine he might be enjoying himself he might be confused that it isn't would. And the yeah I mean I think that there are plenty of scientists who think that birds may very well be experiencing joy and they're trying to figure out how to measure it. How can we how can we figure this out so we can be more sure of it. That's the it gets us to this in interesting and difficult issue. I'm sure that some people would say when you try to take human experience human emotion human feelings and project that on to animals that at least scientifically you are on really shaky ground. Of course we do that all all the time
there. Is there ever going to be. Is there ever going to be. Anyway other than if we look at our experience and how we're feeling and we look at everything we can observe about the annual animal simply making a leap and saying well I'm feeling this and this is what's going on and this is what I'm seeing in the animal in. And why not make the leap. Well you know there's many ways you could talk about that question I mean one is that you know you say that we talk about emotions in joy and enjoyment and music isn't that just a human construct but I'd say it's equally a human construct that nature is divided into numbers and and exact a measurable thing. You know that's just another human way of seeing the world that we can count everything that we can measure everything that we can call this objective. You know actually it's very doubtful that the rest of the world sees it all that way. It's more likely that birds experience things in a more simpler emotional way than
this whole mathematically exact way that we say oh the bird calculates you know 50 percent chance is going to sing this phrase next. You know that's really a particular human way of looking at nature isn't it. And also the whole idea that to assume that nature is all like a machine that only we have emotions only we have music that's equally you know human biased I would say then to say well who knows they may be experiencing all kinds of interesting emotions whether you can test. It's emotion and these kind of softer things. It is you know a serious question that science and evolution ought to think about. It's harder to conceive what it would mean to test it. But that doesn't mean it's not worth thinking about although I did find you know many scientists I talked to thought the kind of things I was interested in. It's you know that's interesting they didn't think it was within the scope of their way of seeing the world. But others found that they'd say Oh you're talking about things that one day we're going to figure out how to address
scientifically maybe 20 30 years from now. Well I'm sort of thinking about the fact that within science and there was a time and I think actually not all that long ago where there were scientists who argued that animals didn't feel pain. Sure. And that now I think we've got a little bit past that and you know anybody who has lived with a companion animal will know that in fact yeah they do. And it it's not that maybe not that much of a jump from the idea that well if they feel pain like we feel pain. You know my analogy is a huge step on my foot. I'll say ow if I step on my cat's foot. He says how. So it's not much of a jump to think well he's experiencing the same thing and then from there I suppose it's also not much of a jump to the idea that if you feel pain you might indeed be able to feel this that if the animal feels pain the animal might indeed be able to feel joy and it would be something like that feeling that we have that we use that word to describe. Yeah. I think that that. Makes sense.
Well let us talk with someone else here we have a caller in Charleston and that is line number four our toll free line. Hello. Yes sike tuned in late and I hope this comment is germane. I feed birds and of course squirrels are everywhere and so they climb the bird feeder whenever they can and I have a baffle and so I first stop them there but I have a small tree at the side of it. The young squirrel I observe this through out the window. He tried to go up the bird feeder twice and of course the baffle stopped him and he climbed the tree and was too far of a jump to get from the tree to the bird feeder so he tried that several times and finally climbed down the tree and laid on its back and had a fit. It was the oddest thing I ever saw and it just laid there and then it got up and went on its way. But the frustration which you know we perceive as a human emotion.
If that was a display of tact then I was witness to something that I hope is part of what your conversation has been about with pay and other aspects of animal emotion and behavior. Would that be. Would you think that was applause. Maybe I misinterpreted it but it was they did to have appeared to me because I raised several children that saw them. Frustrated and disappointed dad reacted you know not in bad not to slide down some did it. But is that a possibility you get the animal makes sense to me. That is one more example of that. You know emotion is appears throughout the animal world. Yes. Well it was something that I have wanted to share so thank you for telling us. All right well thanks for the call. Our guest perhaps I should introduce Again our guest David Rothenberg He's Professor of Philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. His work has been profiled on National Public Radio the BBC. He's also written for The Nation Sierra
and BBC wildlife. His previous books include sudden music and is it painful to think he is also a composer and jazz clarinetist. And he is known. The musical side of things for his bringing together improvisation musical improvisation with the sounds of nature. One of those sounds being the sounds of birds and he's the author of the book why birds sing a journey into the mystery of birdsong basic books is the publisher There is also a CD that accompanies the book it does not come with the book. There are separate items however it helps to illustrate the points that he talks about in the book. And that CD is titled Why birds sing. I'd like to maybe play a little bit of something else from the CD out is there something in particular that you would suggest we might play. Well you could play the last track which is a different way of making music with birds and then I took a hermit thrush song and slowed it down in the studio and then wrote a bass clarinet line to go along with it. So it's one of more reflecting on the whole harmonic in musical possibilities
than just one bird song. OK well maybe we can do that. Can we play cut number 12 on the CD the last one. This is the title is a no water and no rock. We're waiting for it to cue up and the CD. OK when we go. Will you.
Burn the arm. Or nurture. Them.
Let's. Let. Her. Go. And again there you have it our guest David Rothenberg playing the bass clarinet along with the son of a hermit thrush which was recorded then and slowed down. And this is one of the tracks its final track on his CD why birds sing you anything you want to say
about them. The title comes from TS Eliot. He among many other poets and writers was very impressed and transfixed by the sound of the hermit thrush and he wrote some lines about it in the middle of the wasteland I believe. And clearly it was the song he remembered from his days in the U.S. and he was living in England at the time. That. You know it's the sound that that's just it is original for much much faster really really really really just kind of lifting away into the heavens and it's it's. Very far away in a sense from normal human music. But people have found musical chairs for you know a few centuries at least and have been transfixed by even though it's very far away from any kind of human music we're used to suggesting once again that it's not really a stretch to say that birds are making music and that we can appreciate it and through slowing it down and playing along with it. I want
to get inside the musical sense of the static of the hermit thrush and see if I could change my own music in the process of doing so. For a long time when it came to recording bird song the all human beings could do where they had to rely on a pen and a piece of paper and in some way to transcribe it either by using standard musical notation or using something that they would invent. And that of course now we're used to this idea that somewhere someone and maybe different someone's different places tried to come up with a way to describe the various calls of birds and that's why it is we say that the wren says Tea Kettle tea kettle. Adam who who made that up but once you heard Iran you'd say well OK again I get that. Now of course we have Brooke we have a recording that is we can use a tape recorder or some kind of other recording device and we can do it that way. We don't have to rely on being able to transcribe musical notes or something now that we actually can do that kind of recording and we can do. It's analysis of various kinds of ways
does that. Has that made it easier to study birdsong or does that actually make it more difficult. Well maybe it makes it sort of necessary for science to decide birdsong is worthy of serious consideration because scientists can say this is more objective and in addition to recording they can print out the song on paper. Kind of a using a technology called the sonographer. A device invented the end of World War 2 that enabled sound to be printed out and they could look at it in visualize things that were hard for us to hear and identify subtle differences between a fast moving song something that we couldn't hear by just listening to the recording. And so a lot of birdsong study is looking at sonic Grahams recognizing we human beings can't hear all that well but we can look at the printed out you turn into data. It's easy to and easier to analyze.
But you know and this explains why before they were found recording scientists didn't think Birdsong was something they could be objective about. Can naturalists of the 19th century talked about the size and shape and color of birds because they could you know take it down that detail the way that the sound of something that appeared that disappeared. Trust your ears and I ears and a touristy sickle in being sure and how to write something down you know you can say that the Carolina wren a tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle but you hear one you know is that exactly what it's doing. No no but it helps you remember it. Yeah. Let's talk with another caller here in Aruba. Why number one hello. Hi I'm coming to the program LATE also so excuse me if I'm being redundant but I was wondering if your guest is familiar with the organ music and the orchestral music of the live you Missy how did the French composer born in 1982 incorporated birdsong extensively in his orchestral chamber and organ in piano music. Yes since a big part of the book because I talk in one chapter you know at
least one whole chapter on how you know what musicians have done you know over the centuries with birdsong I talk about how when Beethoven and Mozart were using birdsong they were much less attentive to the song and say messenger travelled around the world. Transcribing in detail the songs of birds have to look at your book and you know I had heard he had gone to Australia to hear this bird with an incredible song the lyrebird and I found the same guy who took Misty and out there already to the forest I don't stand a gist of transcribing it I decided I want to play along with this bird. Sure it ended look it's fascinating. Oh thank you oh yeah you should. You might like the book. I wouldn't you know it's Thanks. Well thanks for the call and in fact that there is one of the cuts here on that. The CD we play a couple from the White Bird saying there you do play with the library idea. The Alberts lyrebird appears on three different cuts in this ISU Purba lyrebird another cut. Some of them were playing along live with them myself and the flutist Michael petal and also
another one's taken the lyrebird song put it on tape and played along with it later. Different forms and the lyrebird you know this bird you know has a song that really takes him six years to learn to sing it. They live like 30 or 40 years at least. No one's quite sure. And it really has a beginning and a middle and end the whole complex structure. And that's unlike most bird songs but it's a you know pretty incredible performance it's full of interesting noises and strange rhythms and not what we immediately think of as melodic you know easily musical stuff. But it's also very beautiful and its own aesthetic I really think each species has its own kind of sound that it like sometimes just one short little phrase is enough. Others it's a whole way of dealing with many many different sounds. Let's talk. Would someone else champagne this is lie number two. Hello. Hi good morning. I want to relate a story to you about a different kind of bird song. I was in my garden some years ago and put
down my hands and knees and a bluejay flew into the window behind me. Immediately broke his neck and was dead and landed very close to me and the mate of the bluejay was in a tree nearby and it spent the next 15 20 minutes whatever calling and calling and calling to this bird. It was the most sad anxious fearful. Kind of sound it was just he was so afraid and to me he was saying why don't you get up get away from that person get up get up. And he just kept calling and calling and calling. It was absolutely extraordinary and reduced me to tears. But it was not a bird song for beauty but for fear for anxiousness over the maid it was it was just an extraordinary moment I'll never forget it.
Yeah but it may also have been beautiful. Well in a sort of haunting way yeah but it was he was really the anxiety was I kept it up. Yeah I mean old. Over and over and over again. There are many people I've talked to have interesting stories about bluejays making and they make a whole variety of odds that they don't usually make. And you know I've heard this once in a while and people have noted it again and again one friend of mine who had one in a cage she was rehabilitating said he would he would. She would sing in his sleep dream so it's someone to call just about those who know never heard about something like that but if it's with a bluejay it's certainly possible. Yeah well it was that being on the calling or singing or fun or whatever is so I guess what I'm suggesting is there there may be other emotions that they express. Certainly I think you're right there in you know more of our joy. It was it was something else.
OK thank you. Right well I'm going with the story about 10 minutes left in this part of focus 580 And again our guest is David Rothenberg. He's associate professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He is also composer and clarinetist who is known for putting together musical improvisation with the sounds of nature. His book the book that we've been talking about here this morning is why birds sing a journey into the mystery of birdsong. It's published by Basic Books. If you're interested you can find it on the bookstore it's relatively new and there is also a CD that accompanies it. In a sense they don't come together they're separate items you have to buy them separately but if you're interested in hearing some of the kinds of things we've been talking about and we have played two cuts now from the CD. You can also look for this CD and it is entitled Why birds sing and he said the beginning of the program that when the paperback edition of the book comes out the CD will be with it. So you have to get away to you then you get it all together.
Otherwise if you cannot wait you can rush right out now to the store and you can find I'm sure you can find both questions are welcome here 3 3 3 9 4 5 5 toll free 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5. One of the things that we just touched on was the fact that there are some species of birds that will take parts of the songs of other birds and incorporate them into their own songs. What and and I guess the question is why. Why would they do that it's when it's seems like that it raises a number of other questions. If we say particular birds have songs that are that are special that ornate that they're theirs that they sing. You know for the fun of it that they were there. They are their own compositions. Why would a bird then take pieces of other bird songs. Well the short answer. The scientific answer is we don't know. The more interesting answer begins by saying look you know birds don't just copy other bird sounds they
used birds that are mimics like mocking birds or lie or birds they or starlings they use other bird sounds as part of their own song. And you rarely would confuse a mocking bird imitation of a bluejay with actual bluejay because the mocking bird takes the bluejay sound and plays around with in specific ways. We're just going to hear from the Mockingbird will group together go to air air air air and it'll change it slightly merging it like with another bird song like moving it between blue jay and Cardinal cardinals going you know and the blues and the Mockingbird will go to their own you meld them together and play around with it and repeat them in. Groups of three four five six or seven Usually you can always tell if the mockingbirds got his own aesthetic approach. Now if a starling used the sound he would just take one copy one imitation of a bird sound and mix it around with its own kind of crazy noisy whistles that are actually ystem pretty noisy to us but those that have studied it point out
it's actually very organized as an exact form takes about a minute to sing begins with one kind of whistle and with another kind of whistle. And the great birdsong scientist Peter Marler professor emeritus at UC didn't receive California-Davis he told me the starling song it's at the very limits of human comprehension. Only a minute long. That just shows how far we have to go in understanding these things so why mimic I mean that one strategy is like a musical one. The easy way to get new material you start copying what you hear. Putting it together. Sure but I know birds don't so you have to say evolution selects against this usually doesn't happen. But certain birds use it a whole strategy of how they develop their song out. It seems that Blue Jays and cardinals are really quite uninterested in mocking birds imitating them. They don't really care. They don't respond to it as being a bluejay sound. It's just you know some foreign sound that's not of great interest to them.
Do it when when you record a song of a particular bird and then you play it back to that bird does the bird recognize it as being. Song of their species and do they act. Do they react to it as if this is another bird or do they somehow understand that it's not quite that. It's not quite the same. Well this is one of the main tools of birdsong field. It's called the playback experiment. They have bird back his own song or a slight variation of his own song or a member another another member of his species song or a slightly different species and you measure how the birds react and how this reaction you know changes to the different playback. And a lot of field research most of it on song is based on these kinds of experiments because then you're supposed to be trying to be getting inside the mind of the bird something I earlier said was very hard to do. You're trying to say what it likes what it doesn't like. And this is you know the one of the main tools and birds respond in different ways. Sometimes they respond only to the exact sound sometimes they get totally freaked out if you play a recording of themselves a
certain bird species that subtle differences in the sound identify individuals. And so a whole range of things happened and then there's the issue that if you play the same tape back too many times the bird gets used to it and doesn't respond the way you would think you supposed to. Experiment becomes less useful. That's something some critics in the scientific community have pointed out now as a musician you play along with a bird you know one of the things that when you played those cuts I kept thinking that in a way I it's so much more satisfying just to play along and enjoy and have fun rather than trying to explain what's going on rather than trying to answer this question I set out paths or why birds sing. You know the answer is never going to be as satisfying as the question where at the point I'm sorry to say that we're going to have to stop and I have a couple of people we can include I wonder can you talk just for a minute about the about the interest in birdsong and how that. Makes a link to studying the human brain. The scientific side is that you know as I mentioned earlier not too many
animals out of all the animals out there have vocal learning they can learn to make sound what's going on in the bird's brain that's similar to the human brain. Let's say doesn't happen in a chimpanzee brain because they can't learn to make sounds. And scientists have been you know eagerly looking inside these bird brains and discovered all kinds of interesting things about how they're working. The biggest the most popular interesting sounding discovery is that when it's an adult a bird learns a new song. Among those kinds of birds they can keep learning new songs like canaries. He grows new neurons in his brain. New brain cells new pathways are connected to the brain sort of enhances and repairs itself when it learns something new and that's a very radical revision of how we understand what the way the brain works. One day if we could harness this ability we might be able to fix a damaged brain. Well and so that's the scientific reason the other thing I would have to say is that what's interesting is that you know it's an amazing thing if nature it falls into different beings that can make music. And I have this musical ability and they
- Producing Organization
- WILL Illinois Public Media
- Contributing Organization
- WILL Illinois Public Media (Urbana, Illinois)
- AAPB ID
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/16-gt5fb4x16n).
- With David Rothenberg (Professor of Philosophy at the New Jersey Institute Of Technology, composer and jazz clarinetist)
- Talk Show
- animals; MUSIC; birds; Wildlife; MUSIC
- Media type
Guest: Rothenberg, David
Producer: Brighton, Jack
Producing Organization: WILL Illinois Public Media
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: focus050708a.mp3 (Illinois Public Media)
Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: focus050708a.wav (Illinois Public Media)
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
- Chicago: “Focus; Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song,” 2005-07-08, WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 10, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-gt5fb4x16n.
- MLA: “Focus; Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song.” 2005-07-08. WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 10, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-gt5fb4x16n>.
- APA: Focus; Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song. Boston, MA: WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_16-gt5fb4x16n