Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Thy Song is Strong

Listening to the many hymns from our skies

Eric Ormsby


Shelley wrote that the skylark pours its heart out in "profuse strains of unpremeditated art." The description is itself melodious—as well as studiously vague. Shelley knew better than to mimic the skylark's song. When we try to replicate those notes in words, we're reduced to tweets and chirps—at best a tek-tek here and a weeta-weeta-weeta there. In John Bevis's new handbook, Aaaaw to Zzzzzdabout which more below—the skylark's "profuse strains" are compressed into a ludicrous tirra-lira! We're better at calls; crows do seem to caw, owls to hoot, ducks to quack. But there are some forty-six hundred species of songbirds worldwide; many of these possess hundreds, sometimes thousands, of songs in their repertoires. Their rich and intricate melodies make a mockery of our onomatopoeia. Still, clumsy as words can be for capturing the intonations of birds, they remain the handiest instruments we have. Thanks to sophisticated recording technology and the use of sonograms, the scientific study of birdsong has made tremendous advances over the past half century; but for the birdwatcher in the field or grove, as well as for the professional ornithologist, the ability to remember, and distinguish between, the deedeedleleddwee-daaa of the siskin and the deedl-eedl-eedl of the wood sandpiper remains essential. Such crude ditties serve as cues for the attentive ear.

Most field guides include brief descriptions of the distinctive voices of birds. Thus, the great Roger Tory Peterson, in the sixth edition of his magisterial Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, informs us that the cliff swallow's call sounds as "zayrp; a low chur," while its "song consists of creaking notes and guttural gratings." Such a song can't really be imagined; it has to be heard. But not all birds' voices are identical even within the same species; there are regional differences, as well as "dialects." And individual birds, especially such spectacular soloists as the mockingbird, may display distinctive "personal" styles. Nor does every bird listener hear those voices the same way. What Peterson hears as zayrp, Bevis hears as zaryp.

It is partly to address this confusion that Bevis has compiled what amounts to an avian phrase book for tourists in Birdland. Unlike Peterson's or other field guides, his is arranged alphabetically by birdcall, with one section devoted to North American species and a somewhat smaller one devoted to British and northern European species. There's a useful and amusing list of mnemonics, those tags we use to identify certain species, such as "bob white, bob white" (the northern bobwhite, of course) or "but-I-DO-love-you" (the eastern meadowlark); these mnemonic phrases strike me as in some respects more helpful than the purely onomatopoeic transcriptions. Bevis has embedded his "lexicon" amid several interesting and informative chapters on the nature of birdsong, touching on everything from sonation (the tapping of woodpeckers or the wing noises of owls) to the anatomy of the syrinx, that "bony structure situated low in the trachea, whose membranes are controlled by pairs of muscles on either side, unlike our own flat, single-sided larynx," and which alone enables birds to sing as they do. A London-based poet as well as an avid birder—what the English call a twitcher—Bevis is especially good at describing birdsong; thus, the (British) robin has "a babbling chant inflected here and there with a longer melancholic note." And he is refreshingly given to anthropomorphism, sometimes laced with affectionate amusement, as when he says that he loves "the suave, nonchalant waltzing of the tern, that Fred Astaire of the skies," or notes that birdsong, in addition to its obvious advantages for courtship and territorial defence, is ultimately "an expression of well-being." Who, apart from the grimmest ornithologist, could listen to the rapturous whistles of a blackbird and not feel that this must be true?

Bevis follows his lexica with six fascinating little essays on various methods of collecting birdsong, beginning with an account of the first recording of a singing bird, in 1889 at the Frankfurt Zoo by the precocious Ludwig Koch, then all of eight years old. He goes on to discuss modern recording technology, graphic notation, and sonagrams (or sonographs); he takes particular pleasure in describing the ways in which humans have mimicked birdsong over the ages, from such devices as duck calls and ceramic whistles to the forgotten serinette, a home barrel organ that eighteenth-century ladies used to teach their canaries to sing popular melodies. Nor does he neglect such composers as Olivier Messiaen, who transcribed birdsong for his vast symphonic works. He concludes with the cuckoo clock, which he terms "arguably the most persistently ridiculed object in the history of home furnishing."

Fascinating as these essays are, they represent mere asides to the lexica of birdsongs, which take up more than two-thirds of the book. Bevis has culled his calls from other guidebooks; he doesn't list his sources (though many are inevitably to be found in Peterson), nor does he distinguish between calls and songs proper. To read through these lists, from aaaaw (the black skimmer) to zzzzzd (the lazuli bunting), with bee-bz-bz-bz (the golden-winged warbler) and kakakowlp-kowlp (the yellow-billed cuckoo) and looo-ee poo-too-ee (the American golden plover) along the way, is to stagger through a phonic realm of sheer if purposeful cacophony. There are acoustic enigmas, too—how to distinguish, for example, between qua-ack (the American wigeon) and good old-fashioned quack (the blue-winged teal, among others)? Caught up in this relentless, massed onomatopoeia, the reader has the dread sense of what death by woodpecker might feel like. Still, Bevis has clearly had a lot of fun compiling his lexica; he revels in his birds' "words" just because they are "bizarre, nonsensical, sometimes pretty, sometimes comic, like baby talk or Hugo Ball's sound poetry." Not surprisingly, his lists often leave a strong impression of having been compiled with tongue firmly in beak.

We listen to the songs of birds but we don't always really hear them. Even the simplest riffs cross our ears in a sort of aural flash. Like people chattering away in a language we don't know, birds always seem to sing too fast. To remedy this, the British Library has drawn on its vast sound archive to present Secret Songs of Birds, which includes samples of twenty-four different species, recorded at locations as far apart as Namibia, the Hebrides, Arizona, and Uzbekistan. Here are the songs of the British wren, the curve-billed thrasher, and the white-bellied sunbird, along with many more, and they are all in top voice. This isn't the usual birdsong CD, however, for each song is given twice, first at normal speed and then drastically slowed down, sometimes by as much as 50 percent. The effect is astonishing. Gone are those chirps and burbles, those tink-tink-tinks and tirra-liras. Our ears brim instead with pure notes flawlessly voiced. The cadenzas of these songsters, replayed for our more plodding faculties, reveal all their "unpremeditated art." Such songs were probably the first music we humans heard; through the magic of these recordings, we have the unexpected sensation of entering an Eden made audible. However different, however untranslatable, our words and the notes of birds may be, we recognize an ancient kinship. Wasn't it the birds, after all, who first taught us to sing?

Eric Ormsby's Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place is forthcoming from Porcupine's Quill.

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