It is spring. Migratory birds are coming back to our northern skies and I’ve been thrilled to watch them return. This week in particular the chirping of birds have gotten varied and louder, sounding nearly feverish at dawn. There’s nothing like their happy (sorry for my anthropocentric description, but they do sound quite happy) chorus — chitter-chatter, gurgling, cheep-cheep, tweet-tweet, pip-pip. At least to my ears they sound so excited and exuberant.
I enjoy drawing birds. Right now on my desk sits the chickadee carving for my new print. Chickadees are curious, friendly little birds with a cute black-cap and white breast, about the size of a large egg. They jump from branch to branch, hanging here and there; they’re a natural acrobat.
Recently I caught what my husband calls “a bird fever”; it is like the spring fever. I am just obsessed with birds. I have the urge to learn about them. I wanted to learn beyond American robins and stellar jays. Just imagine my excitement when I spotted a couple of bluish looking birds (the size of American robin) and could intelligently say that they weren’t stellar jays, but they were Western scrub jays swooping down from the cherry tree.
I’ve been seen walking around the backyard with my I-phone app for bird call identifications. I attended an Audubon meeting at a local library. I bought books on birding. I’m trying to act like a birder, but honestly I have to say, I’m not even a fledgling birder. I’m more of a nestling, or should I say I’m basically a hatchling birder at this stage.
Since I love music, I am particularly interested in the sounds they make. Birds sing just as we humans use our voices to communicate. Bird calls are varied and functionally specific, such as “Come here, darling” (a mating song) “Keep out!” (territorial signal) “Danger!” (alarm call). A male sings more often than a female as their singing is often a gesture of courtship. The length of the male birds’ songs correlates directly to his popularity.
Sure, so far these all sound pretty much a common sense. But it gets more interesting here. Why do they sing so loudly at dawn? Louder than other times in the day? Have you noticed?
Is it the perfect stillness of the morning air which allows their voices to transmit further? Or is it just a perfect time for love gestures from a boy bird to a girl bird who is nesting somewhere in the morning? Or are they simply excited with too much stored energy in the morning? (Look at my children racing the staircase up and down in the morning! We can’t stop them.)
We humans really don’t seem to know why. . . why they sing at dawn, so much louder than the rest of the day?
Or simpler yet, how do they sing so well, I wonder. How do the little birds produce such pure tones with such ease, out of that tiny body? I found out that birds don’t use larynx for their voice production. They use syrinx instead. Is it the perfect placement of sound traveling through their small bodies into their tiny head cavities that enable their perfect voice production? As an amateur soprano myself, I admire these small backyard singers’ remarkable abilities.
Fascination with birds is boundless. Over the centuries and across continents — from the ancient Greece and China, to Victorian America, humans tried to capture these wonderfully musical creatures on earth by making bird automatons. We humans have the desire to replicate the delicate songs of the birds, but it is like trying to count all the stars in night sky.
Inevitably bird songs have inspired music composers as well. Songs inspired by birds are everywhere, from folk songs, classical, to pop music. From imitations of bird sounds (like cuckoo), to the pastoral sounds depicted by the call of a lark, we have a rich legacy of “bird inspired music.” I am compiling a list of bird-inspired music right now, but the list is endless. Just to name a few of the classical music composers, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Edward Grieg, Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Benjamin Britten, Messian. It goes on and on. Flute, piano, violin, and soprano voice, among others, have been used to portray their brilliant whistles and songs.
Biber’s Sonata Representativa in A Major is so much fun with all the faithful imitation of bird sounds, from nightingale, cuckoo, quail, cock, hen. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VXcuaHwpac) And if you’re curious what a human voice can portray, please listen to the great soprano Lily Pons’ “Pretty Mocking Bird” or Kathleen Battle’s “Lo Here the Gentle Lark” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3itv-6VT7lc and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Mu7oZXcYxg, respectively.)
It is spring, dear friends. I hope you get up early in the morning, walk outside and enjoy the beauty of their songs at dawn. Some of the migratory birds will be gone in a few more months, so now is the time to listen to their songs. Not a morning person? Hmmm. . . Just try it once; the reward is for you to discover!