Bird Calls

Bardiac has been looking at spring birds. So have I. At the feeders yesterday: a swarm of goldfinches, another swarm of chickadees, a couple of bluejays, hairy & downy woodpeckers, juncos patrolling the snow for what the others dropped, & a couple of nuthatches streaking in & out. I've always loved nuthatches -- their quick flight, their way of spiraling down a tree trunk headfirst. Now it turns out they are multilingual. According to this news story, nuthatches understand chickadee calls. I've always been fascinated by bird's calls & know our common local species well enough to identify by ear. When I was a kid looking through my mother's Peterson's (Third Edition, Western birds) for the first time, I was particularly drawn the the weirdness of the transcriptions of birdsong in "English," or so I thought of it. For the black-capped chickadee: "A clearly enunciated chick-a-dee-dee-dee or dee-dee-dee." It now appears that the number & tonal quality of the dee syllable carries quite a lot of information. The world is almost always more complex than we imagine, though it is no doubt practical for everyday life to gloss over complexities. And yet it is those complexities that catch me. Blake called them "minute particulars" & for him noticing such things was a quality of "genius," though he meant something much more subtle by that word than we do. Take this thing, for instance. It is a Lie Group, which is a kind of mathematical object, & this one, called E8, is apparently the weirdest of the weird. In fact, all I can understand about it is its beautiful, complex weirdness. But back to birdsong, which is complicated enough. Peterson tells me that the nuthatch's voice when singing is "a rapid series of low, nasal, whistled notes on one pitch: whi, whi, whi, whi, whi, whi, or who, who, who, etc. Note a nasal yank; also a nasal tootoo." And for the hairy woodpecker, this remark: "Note, a sharp peek! (Downy says pick!)" At age seven, I had the idea that different birds knew different fragments of my language, which is of course a naive & childish notion. Birdsong carries a great deal more specific information than a few random syllables of English could encode. But children don't know things & children also do not make the r sort of "scientific" division of the world that adults make, between themselves and other animals, especially. But is it even correct, in any meaningful sense, to talk about birds "singing" at all? Isn't the use of song in this formulation entirely metaphorical? When we talk about bird song, don't we make the same mistake I made as a child when reading Peterson's guide, the mistake of assuming birds are doing the same thing we do when we sing? (Of course, I routinely make such assumptions about all sorts of the behavior of my dogs.) Composers have from time to time interested themselves in the sounds birds make, most notably Oliver Messiaen. And Messiaen produced lovely & complex works based on the singing of birds, but birsongs served the composer, I think, most importantly as a way of breaking loose from the forms of the Western music of the 19th centruy, not as model songs. Messiaen went to the birds for the same reasons that Stravinsky went to Gregorian chant. And then there is biologist David Campbell, who uses his clarinet to interact with birds. I've heard him on the radio playing notes back & forth with a bowerbird, but I'm not sure how to characterize the what's going on. Music? That's not a category the bird has. Language? Campbell admits he doesn't know what he is "saying" to the bird, falling back instead on a vague account of "communication." But what is being communicated? Finally, I suppose, I'm agreeing with Wittgenstein: "If a lion could talk, we wouldn't be able to understand him." That's because a lion has a different way of life from us, just as birds do. And yet when birds sing, we humans feel some deep connection. Perhaps our primate ancestors watched birds communicating complex information vocally & got the idea to do the same. Language might take off from such a place.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

4 thoughts on “Bird Calls”

  1. About birdsong: yesterday after the Tacoma Reads Together discussion of “The Pact” by The Three Doctors – at a lilac bush close to the sidewalk I heard a note repeating. I looked in past the places where the starting leaves are tipped with starting lilacs, in the middle was a chickadee going dee dee dee. Like in the poem by David Romtvedt called “Radio”, it did not seem to matter whether I was there, and as I continued the dee dee dee kept up behind me. I know it is a lilac bush because I have walked past there since 2004. So there are birds here. Laura Jensen

  2. When I go to refill the feeder in the yard, there are often chickadees on it. They are tough little buggers & look me right in the eye, only flying away when I get right up to them. I find them highly admirable & wrote a poem about them last winter that you can read here.

  3. John Luther Adams has also composed in response to birdsong. You might be interested in his book Winter Music, if you haven’t already read it.

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