they just want to sing

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin The Canary oil on canvas 19.75" x 17"

I'd love them even if they didn't sing, but they do, and now we're learning how much they want to, and why they want to.

Because of the beautiful garden which is enclosed by our two relatively-low-rise Manhattan apartment buildings lying along the great eastern flyway, we can easily imagine that we live inside an aviary. I recognize the sounds of sparrows, blue jays and mourning doves, and I'm proud and delighted to know the distinct call of the male cardinal who shares the courtyard with a mate who is almost as red as he is, and sometimes he comes to visit our own small garden annex one story up, but I have no idea who is producing the other delightful sounds which come from our wonderful arboretum/sanctuary.

The other afternoon, just after a guest had remarked upon the quiet of our apartment (at least the north side), I found myself resting on a bed near an open window trying to determine what I could detect of the machine sounds of the great city which surrounds our walls.    . . . nothing. Instead I found myself enchanted by what seemed to be an avian composition more exotic than usual, composed mostly of percussive clicks acccompanied by a gentle whistle (think Martin Denny's "exotica"). When it's the real thing, and you don't need mosquito netting, it's sheer ecstasy.

This morning while reading the papers I came across one of those odd news/feature reports which manage to overshadow everything else I may have read that day, the sort of find which makes reading hard copy news still worth its demands in time and forearm disturbance.

New York Newsday's staff writer Jamie Taylan (undoubtedly another bird lover, but then who isn't?) reports that birds raised in isolation can learn a complex tune not part of their heritage but will switch to their mating song once spring arrives, even if they've never heard it before.

Scientists at Rockefeller University in Manhattan found that young male canaries raised in the lab had no trouble learning a computer-generated song that had no resemblance to the song their father would normally teach them.

But one morning, the scientists arrived at the lab to discover that the birds, on the brink of adulthood, were chirping the song they were destined to sing - even though they had never heard it before. The research appears today in the journal Science.

. . .

Somehow, [former post-doctoral student at Rockefeller Timothy J.] Gardner said, they do their own editing, splicing and rearranging of the computer-generated song so that they are singing the song, speaking the language understood by songbirds.

. . .

Gardner and his colleagues, including Rockefeller neuroscientist Fernando Nottebohm, say that the mature birds in the experiment sing their species-specific song, yet every once in a while the old riff from their youth can be heard.

. . .

Nottebohm said that the ability of the songbirds to sing two distinct types of song "is reminiscent of people speaking two languages and being able to use both. Not a small feat for birds."

But, sitting next to a tiny animated parakeet by a window at the edge of a garden filled with his chattering distant relatives, at least the news about two languages doesn't surprise me at all.

[image from Web Gallery of Art]

Hello! This book and recording might be of interest to you. I haven't ordered it yet but will do.
best to you,

A better understanding of why birds sing has led David Rothenberg, PhD, a professor in the department of humanities at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), on a journey into the seemingly disparate worlds of science, poetry and music. The result is the publication this month of Why Birds Sing (Basic Books).

"My book is the first introduction to the world of bird song to combine science, music and poetry to make sense of why birds sing," Rothenberg said.

The book's idea originated with Rothenberg's experiences in 2000 when playing his clarinet along with birds in the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. To his surprise, one bird, a white-crested laughing thrush, responded to his music much more than he had expected. Soon, Rothenberg wanted to know why birds behaved the way they did. He embarked on a journey which led him from ancient writings to the cutting edge of neuroscience,

Why Birds Sing makes good use of Rothenberg's experience teaching courses in science, technology, and society at NJIT. These courses gave him a unique window on which to view his subject. For example, in the 19th century, poets were more accurate than scientists in noting down the rhythms of bird songs. Later, though, in the 20th century, sound recording and computers revolutionized the ability of researchers to print out bird songs and scrutinize the sounds on paper. For Rothenberg, thanks to his unusual teaching and research background, both these facts made sense and indeed were incorporated into the book.

More unusual tidbits abound. The text highlights a 200-page book about a three-note bird song, written in the 1940s. He details a bird that picks up African bird songs on its migratory route . Later this crooner sings the African tunes in the marshes of Europe when it returns in summer.

Examining the field of neuroscience, Rothenberg explains how researchers have discovered that when a canary learns a new song, new neurons appear in his brain.

So why do birds sing. "Because they can and because they must," said Rothenberg. "Songs are used to attract mates and defend territories, but the form is much more than function. Nature is full of beauty, and of music."

Rothenberg is the editor of the Terra Nova book series, published by MIT Press, presenting environmental issues as culture, not only policy. His own writing has been anthologized in The Best Spiritual Writing 1999 edited by Philip Zaleski (Harper San Francisco) and The Soul of Nature: Visions of a Living Earth by M Tobias. His articles have appeared in Parabola, Orion, The Nation, Wired, and other publications.

Source: New Jersey Institute of TechnologyEditorial Reviews


Paul Winter, back cover of book WHY BIRDS SING April 2005
"David Rothenberg is one of the rare musicians who is devoted to exploring the voices of the natural world."

About the Artist
David Rothenberg is an improvising composer and philosopher with numerous recordings, performances, and books to his credit. His 1995 record, On the Cliffs of the Heart, with percussionist Glen Velez and banjo player Graeme Boone, was released by New Tone Records. A few years earlier John Cage praised this trio’s "sense of virtuosity traveling all over the world."

Album Description
David Rothenberg jams with lyrebirds and laughing thrushes, catbirds and bou bou shrikes. This recording has been five years in the making, and it involves cutting-edge musicians from all over the world mixing their sounds with the wonderful musical melodies and tones of birds. Hear the interspecies jams that set the book in motion, as Rothenberg’s clarinets and Michael Pestel’s flute meet a white-crested laughing thrush in the National Aviary, and a wild Australian lyrebird named George in his rainforest home. These pieces are live interactions betweeen humans and birds, and the music lies somewhere along the uncharted flyways of evolution. Back in the studio a stretched-out hermit thrush song meets the bass clarinet, and Maori flutes, Estonian guitars, and live Finnish electronics meet catbirds, starlings, skylarks, and waves.

The record is co-produced by Rothenberg along with tuba player Patrick Donahue, known for his work as surround-sound mixer on Bowling for Columbine and Control Room.

I have an aviary in the back too. It is a wonderful thing and can become my world... woodpeckers and Jays,Grosbeaks and chickadees, even hawks. And of course sparrows. I love the sounds mourning doves make. While I make an abstract art for the world, at home I often doodle birds.

You have to agree that a peacock isn 't quite as nice a song. They sound like a woman being mangled.