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, 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.
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."
[image from Web Gallery of Art]