In Birds as in Humans?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

David Rothenberg concludes Why Birds Sing with an answer to the question implied in the book’s title: “For the same reason we sing—because we can. Because we love to inhabit the pure realms of sounds.” This notion is reminiscent of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s application of funktionslust—“pleasure taken in doing what one does best”—to impressive animal displays. In both cases, the pleasure is not merely frivolous or “for itself,” but an evolutionary adaptation that increases the likelihood of survival. As with theories of musical development in early humans—from Darwin’s sexually selected mating songs to Joseph Jordania’s “battle trance,” in which repetitious beats prepared our prehistoric ancestors for the hunt—there appears to be a mechanistic basis for sonic aesthetics.

One of the refreshing aspects of Rothenberg’s work on bird song (as well as whale song and bug rhythm) is his apparent embrace of the pejorative “anthropomorphizer.” A musician and philosopher, he compares structural and functional aspects of human and avian songs, and freely speculates about links between them. He is no stranger to criticism from the scientific community: “Scientists who say they are investigating what actually occurs in nature caution that musicians and poets tend to hear what they want to hear, to extract some human meaning out of the world’s alien inscrutability. Musicians remain enthralled by what seems unassailably beautiful about the sounds of birds, whether akin to noise music or dulcet melodies.”

Is there common ground between the two camps? Can we, as primatologist Frans de Waal advocates, avoid “gratuitous anthropomorphism” without conducting “linguistic castrations”? More to the point, can bird song reveal anything about our own songs?

Research on bird mimics offers intriguing possibilities. A brief report by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology summarizes several explanations for this behavior. In northern mockingbirds, which can learn upwards of 200 songs, mimicry is likely a sign of fitness. Females seem to prefer males who sing more songs, and adding tunes to the repertoire—from other birds and environmental sounds—can give a mating advantage. Similarly, male marsh warblers pick up songs from wintering grounds in Africa and bring them back to Europe—presumably to impress potential mates. Human virtuosi and sophisticates have similar allure.

Other birds use mimicry to fit in. Indigobirds, for example, are brood parasites that lay eggs in the nests of other species. Chicks learn the begging calls of the host to blend in and get fed. The female thick-billed euphonia uses alarm calls of other species to solicit help in defending her nest from predators. Assimilating songs of the “in-crowd” and using sounds of the “other” to gain their sympathy—these, too, have human analogues.

Occasionally, bird mimicry can also go awry. There are numerous cases of birds learning the wrong songs, such as a vesper sparrow singing songs of the Bewick’s wren and a common yellowthroat singing a chestnut-sided warbler song. These hapless mimics often go unpaired. For humans, engrossment in “uncool” music has a comparable effect.

Hard-nosed scientists caution against drawing parallels between humans and animals—especially distant relatives like birds. Without doubt, there are significant limits to such comparisons. At the same time, the distance provides room for reflection. The immediacy and ubiquity of music in human life—not to mention its labeling as “entertainment”—can obstruct our awareness of its functional basis. The scientific approach to bird song encourages us to ponder like traits in our own music cultures.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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