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CHAPTER VI

SONGS WITHOUT WORDS

ANATOMY shows us that the lower larynx, the syrinx or voice organ of singing birds, is the most marvelous musical instrument known, not excepting the prima donna's throat; that this organ, which is of the simplest form in birds of the lower orders, became more and more intricately complex the more highly birds developed, for song is of comparatively late achievement in their evolution; that the music which enchants us comes from where the bronchial tubes fork into the upper lungs; that a modulating apparatus, consisting of various kinds and numbers of bony half rings and muscles around the tubes and differing greatly with the different species, have much to do with a bird's scientific classification; that, by the automatic working of these muscles, musical messages of changeable tone and increased or diminished volume of sound may be sent at will through the tracheal sounding pipe — all this and vastly more that is anatomical might be told; and yet a deaf person, who has never heard a bird sing, could form absolutely no idea of its music.

"You cannot with a scalpel find the poet's soul, 
  Nor yet the wild bird's song."

Or, let the technical musician, whose trained ear catches the most delicate gradations of tone, attempt to write down, for example, the little house wren's gushing lyric. Again, impossible I Just as there are intervals in the African negro's melodies too subtle to be recorded on paper, although they are caught by the ear of each generation from its predecessor and passed on correctly to posterity, so there is an elusive quality in bird music defying both scientific analysis and translation into set musical terms. As well try to convey music itself through a dictionary's definitions of it as to catch the rollicking, bubbling song of the bobolink on a printed page.

Many beginners in bird study write to the ornithologist, asking him to name the songster whose music is laboriously described on an enclosed sheet. Staff, added lines, clef, time, bars, notes, sharps, flats, naturals, rests, accents — all are as carefully set down as if the inquirer were copying an intricate Bach fugue; yet not once out of ten times can the bird be named correctly by its written song alone, no matter how well up in field practice the ornithologist may be: the quality is lacking, and that is the very essence of the song. Lacking that, some description of size, plumage, or habit, must be mentioned to aid identification.



CALL THE BIRDS TO YOU

But catching bird music by ear is a different matter from writing it. Every farmer's boy knows that by crowing like his pet rooster he can make him reply, and that first one cock, then another, will echo the challenge, until every rooster in the neighborhood is set to flapping his wings and crowing with all his might. Certain wild birds have simple songs so pure of tone, or so slowly delivered, or so sharply accented, that the merest novice who can whistle has little difficulty in imitating them well enough to deceive even the feathered singer himself into thinking that one of his kind is replying from the wood. One can "whistle up" silent birds, too, trying first one call, then another, to learn what bird is within hail; then, hearing a reply in the far distance, bring the minstrel nearer and nearer to investigate the freaky song — so like his own and yet so different! — that curiosity must be satisfied by closer inspection, until he frequently gets near enough to photograph, if not to touch. No birds are more readily attracted than the friendly little chickadees, whose three very more high, clear call-notes, once heard, are easily imitated.


A gorgeous minstrel - the Baltimore oriole

The quail on the outskirts of the farm calls back a cheerful "bob-white" to your sharp staccato whistle, and quite as promptly as if you were a sentry demanding "Who goes there?" Timid plover hiding in the grain fields utter a plaintive, almost petulant kill-dee, kill-dee to one who can call them by name. The phoebe bird, building under the roadside bridge or the rafters of your piazza, keeps up a monotonous pewit phoebe, pewit phoebe whether you ask his name or not, although even he likes to hear it called. His relative, the wood pewee, whose song in B-flat minor suggests a rather melancholy religieux living apart from this wicked world, is quite ready to repeat his "one sweetly solemn thought," which "comes to him o'er and o'er" — at your suggestion. Indeed, nothing seems to daunt this pensive minstrel. When midsummer silences nearly every other voice he still sings on, with the indigo bunting and the red-eyed vireo. How refreshing is the song sparrow's cheerful, merry, but alas! inimitable, outburst after the solemn pewee! But one soon learns that the bird music which really enchants us — the bobolink's, cardinal's, thrush's or mocking-bird's, for example, — can never be imitated by human lips, albeit birds and humans are the only creatures that can sing. Andrew Carnegie said he would as lief shoot an angel as a song-bird, for both must he akin because they sing and fly.


While a good whistler obtains satisfactory results by repeating after the birds certain of the simplet songs until they are learned perfectly, it is quite a different matter to so record them on paper that one who had never heard them before could whistle them off, like ordinary tunes from a book, well enough to deceive the feathered songsters themselves. I doubt if it could be done. Take, for instance, the white-throated sparrow's familiar, well-defined strain. When this comes to be set down in cold type, no two books in the library record it alike. New Englanders think the bird devotes his vocal energies to glorifying "Old Sam Peabody," while our British cousins, over the border, are so certain that he sings the praises of their land they actually call him the Canada sparrow. "What's in a name?" All sorts of phrases, in words of three syllables, have been fitted to this strain in various sections, yet however differently people record the song, it is perhaps the only one written — the one out of every ten submitted — by which the persecuted ornithologist could correctly name the bird without further description. The sets of triplicate notes identify it, not the words which imagination supplies. But print can convey no idea of the exquisite quality of that high-pitched, piercing, sweet, tenderly plaintive strain. Whistle it from memory, in the cool of a spring day, in some deep northern forest — perhaps not one, but a half a dozen white-throats will pierce the evening stillness, complimenting your poor performances as no opera singer yet was encored.

Swee . . . eet                  Can-a-da,        Can-a-da,               Can-a-da,      

   I,             I,                    Pea-bod-y,          Pea-bod-y,           Pea-bod-y.


HOW BIRDS LEARN TO SING

It is nature's only way to teach sound — by ear — and still the most exact. As a child is born a certain racial type of linguist and learns to speak by imitating the words in daily use about him, so a bird enters life the kind of singer that he is and learns his notes by imitating those of his closest associates. Only, the more clever young child, given an equal opportunity to hear two languages, acquires one as readily as the other; while the bird, in a state of nature, usually confines its notes to the traditional ones of its clan, although it may hear the notes of scores of other species every day of its youth. Certain very young European goldfinches, isolated from others of their kind, showed a decided tendency to repeat only the notes of the caged songsters about them; still, they used some inherited notes, too, and these, with the inherited quality of voice, made their song sufficiently characteristic of the species to be recognizable. Many more experiments are necessary, however, to prove with scien­tific accuracy that a bird even partially inherits his song. We know that expert trainers have taught the bullfinch to whistle "Yankee Doodle." The mocking-bird is by no means the only mimic. A certain pet canary could so perfectly imitate the English sparrows that came about his cage on the porch to pick up the waste seed, that it was only by watching the movements of the feathers on his throat that one could believe it was he who was amusing himself by imitating the chirpings and twitterings of an entire sparrow flock.

Probably a bird both inherits and acquires his notes; otherwise, how could we account for the many variations of the same song rendered by different birds of the same species? No two canaries in any shop sing precisely alike, although all may have been hatched in the same peasant's house in the Hartz Mountains. In every case individuality reveals itself in shrillness or mellowness of tone, in the low, sweet, tender warble, or the sharp, almost vindictive roundelay incessantly repeated with the evident desire to overpower all rivals; yet we recognize the canary in each song. To the general characteristics of the species we must add individuality of temperament and the training received from the individual's associates before we can understand any bird's music.

Travelers in the Canary Islands say that the wild canaries there are by no means so skilled musicians as the caged singers. Doubtless the bird's voice has been improved by cultivation as much as his feathers, which, originally, were greenish gray and brown, when canaries were first imported into Europe in the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, our own wild songsters show almost, if not quite, as much diversity as the caged canaries when we concentrate our study on the music of a single species.


The chief American songster - a young Mocking-bird

How many people who have spent their lives in the country recognize all the songs and calls even of the robin? Probably he is the first bird we learned to know by name. Among the first arrivals and the latest stayers, he lives on terms of neighborly intimacy with us at least two-thirds of every year; yet the fact that twenty-five distinct songs and calls have been recorded of a single individual by one who took no pains to study robin music in different sections of the country — where bird voices differ as greatly as human dialects — causes many people to lift their eyebrows with an incredulous "Is it possible?"


First call for breakfast

How his first salute to spring electrifies us with good cheer! The hair-sparrow's wiry little trill has scarcely roused the sleeping choir at dawn when he begins a subdued warble, which gradually increases with the morning light until, his throat attuned and all his powers fully alert, he bursts at last into the splendid exuberant performances which so delight us. Everybody knows it. Heard at its best, none is more exhilarating and few are more beautiful, but even his own meditative, tender, warbled even-song excels the matins. Then there are two less familiar strains given before and after rain, the exquisite love song without words yet perfectly understood, a call of caution to his mate, a clear, vigorous, ringing, military alarm, a signal to take wing, a summons to his comrades when they have gathered in an autumn flock, a self-conscious brag, an outburst of temper, endearing, coaxing notes for the young, scoldings for the cat, and so on through the gamut of his experiences. There appears to be a different vocal expression for each. And he has an old trick of humming to himself with his mouth closed, as if practicing for public recitals, — the most humorous performance of all, if you have the good fortune to surprise him at it.



WHY BIRDS SING

A study of farmyard poultry reveals a surprising number of call-notes in common use among chicks, hens and roosters, not to mention the ejaculations reserved for such unusual occurrences as the sudden swoop of a hawk or the headsman's axe. Forty distinct utterances do not exhaust their vocabulary. Here, better than elsewhere, we may observe the necessity for every call-note and its fitness, and apply some of our knowledge to the less accessible songbirds.

But a call is quite different from a song, and was doubtless evolved ages before it. One is a first necessity, the other a highly desirable but secondary acquisition generally attained only by the male. For the same reason that a rooster crows — to challenge his rivals or to make a favorable impression on the hens of his acquaintance — does a bird sing, and the more refined and beautiful his voice the higher does he rank in the books. Bird music means vastly more than a crow, gobble, boom, or drumming. It indicates the triumph of the higher nature over the lower; it may become the expression of those qualities which we usually associate with soul. "No original water-haunter or ground-builder ever sang," says James Newton Baskett. "Every melody is a march — a command to move onward — to the ear that can truly comprehend it."



INSTRUMENTAL PERFORMERS

For the sake of advertising their location as well as to please, some birds that can't sing resort to curious expedients. The prairie-cock inflates two loose yellow sacs on the sides of his head that stand out like small oranges. From these he lets out air to produce a booming sound, — powerful, penetrating like the deep tones of an organ, — which he repeats again and again until the whole neighborhood reëchoes and all rival cocks have been challenged to boom more loudly than he. Then all assemble, to fight with beak and claws, on their favorite "scratching ground," in the presence of an admiring circle of hens. The prize-fight among birds indicates no higher plane of development than among humans. We don't expect much of gallinaceous fowls.


A favorite booming log and trysting place (Canada grouse)

Another of these, the ruffed grouse, usually mounts a fallen log, preferably one that has served many seasons as a drumming and trysting place. At first slowly beating his wings, he moves faster and faster, until there is only a blur where the wings vibrate too rapidly for human sight to follow. Without touching the log with his wings, striking only the air, he beats a rolling tattoo, a deep, muffled, sonorous, crepitating whir-r-r-r that serves as advertisement, challenge, love song, and an outlet to his inordinate vanity and vigorous animal spirits. Every sportsman knows that sound of the drummer without a drum.

When the nighthawk drops downward from a great height, his outstretched wings and tail create an æolian instrument which gives forth the jarring, booming, whirring noise that is more weird than musical.


The flicker - our only woodpecker vocalist

With the exception of the flicker — a law unto himself among his clan — our native woodpeckers are instrumental performers only. The rap-tap-tapping of their bills against the tree trunks is as cheerful music as any in the spring woods. The sapsucker hammers his vigorous, impetuous, staccato proposal with more sense of musical values, perhaps, than the others; but all are musicians, though they can't sing a note. Songless birds have found various ways of expressing their sentiments. Some dance, some ogle, and none is more ridiculous in his antics to woo the well-beloved than the flicker, whose vocal accomplishments are by no means to be despised. All the woodpeckers delight in sound, however produced. Hairy and Downy frequently tap on the tin roofs and gutters of our houses simply because they like the noise. A pair of red-headed woodpeckers reared their family in a hollow tree next the railroad track in the station-yard at Atlanta, where the smoke of every passing locomotive enveloped their house; but engineers let off steam and do much bell-ringing when about the yards, and these woodpeckers evidently enjoyed the din enough to compensate them for the smoke and publicity.

To hear the kingfisher flying up stream advising his mate that he is coming home, one might suspect that he, too, is an instrumentalist, his instrument being a policeman's rattle. The cuckoo also has a peculiar rattle, kr-r-r-r-r-uck-uck-uck, suggesting a great tree-toad; but neither of these birds may be used to swell the short list of instrumental performances. Both are vocalists.



PEERLESS MUSICIANS

But when we speak of vocalists no one has in mind either kingfisher or cuckoo, or the screaming blue jay that goes roving about through the autumn woods with a troop of noisy fellows, or his cousin the crow, or the wheezy grackles whose notes suggest wagon-wheels in need of axle-grease, or the uncanny owls whose hoots make night hideous, or strident hawks, or wild geese honking as they speed high above us in a wedge-shaped flock. To him that hath ears to hear even these are musical. No; the real star performers of the world are such as buy no castles in Wales with the proceeds of a single concert tour, but shy, often persecuted creatures, which, like the hermit thrush, lift up their heavenly voices in woodland solitudes with only a devoted little mate for an audience. Love alone inspires these highest attainments. Neither for applause nor hope of gain does the mocking-bird fill the southern groves with its enchanting melody, or thrushes peal their silvery bell-like notes through northern woods. For beggar or king the humble little field-sparrow makes no variations of its exquisite song. The gorgeous cardinal's rich whistle, the bobolink's hurried, tripping cadenzas, the wren's tuneful frolic, the vesper-sparrow's hymn-like benediction at close of day — all are free as salvation! It is the unearthly, soulful quality in a bird's voice that thrills one with shivery creeps of sympathetic vibration.


An instramentalist with a call like a policeman's rattle - Kingfisher


The blue jay - mimic, ventriloquist, tease and rascal


The wood-thrush


WHEN BIRDS SING

In February, before we have begun to look for pussy-willows or skunk-cabbages, the song-sparrow's sweet, sprightly bluebirds, blackbirds, and other "merry cheer" opens the concert of bird music. Presently robins, bluebirds, blackbirds, and other migrants returning from the south in advance of the females, burst into joyous songs of expectancy, e very day adding some new minstrel to the choir, until toward the end of spring the birds are holding such a May festival as Theodore Thomas never conducted. Late in the merry month nearly every throat that can make music is rippling, whistling and warbling its utmost best; for a bird's season of song usually corresponds with its nesting season. Some musicians, it is true, attune their voices long before the courting days, yet in anticipation of them; and they still have enough vitality left after they have helped raise two broods and have molted their feathers, to express enjoyment of life in song. Either or both of these physical strains is enough to stop some birds' melody altogether. One rarely hears a bobolink after the fourth of July. Few birds, indeed, attempt to sing after family cares and midsummer heat and the growing of new feathers deject their spirits. Such as continue through these ordeals usually drop so many notes that one can scarcely recognize the broken fragments of their real song. But after the new suit of clothes is well on, whether it is joy in the possession of them or a returned sense of physical well-being, in early autumn a second singing usually begins — not so long, nor so exuberant, nor so pleasing, but still a welcome reminder of spring joys.


The song-sparrow chooses a conspicuous perch for his performance



THE DEVELOPMENT OF BIRD AND HUMAN MUSIC

Whether the evolution of bird music has paralleled that of our own is not yet a settled question among scientists, but a great mass of evidence seems to prove that it has followed similar lines, and that its tendency is still toward the same ideal. We have already noted that it is the quality of voice, not so much the intervals of the melodic scale, that differentiates avian from human music. That sense of rhythm is variously developed among birds we realize on comparing the Carolina wren's precisely emphasized beats with the jumbled jargon of that rollicking polyglot, the Maryland yellow-throat. All the intervals of the major and minor scales that we can write, as well as some too elusive to record, are used by birds in perfection of tone. They employ very effectively repetitions of notes and phrases, sometimes so combined as to produce a formal theme, — some birds of quite limited powers thus producing the most pleasing results. They trill on two notes or more, introducing a finer tremolo than a pipe-organ's. Antiphonals are indulged in by several of the tuneful sparrows, chewinks and meadowlarks; in short, they make unconscious use of musical intervals and methods that men have formulated into laws. Because they are laws, we are just beginning to realize that they may be of wide enough application to include the birds' music. Above all, there is a purity, an exquisite quality of a bird's song, with which no other on earth is to be compared. That music such as theirs can be written at all in the set forms that we use for ours would seem to indicate that the lines of development of both are not so divergent as one at first might suppose. Foremost critics declare that the opera and oratorio of the future will be sung, like bird music, without words.


One of our sweetest though unappreciated songsters - the rose-breasted grosbeak

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