Speaking the Language

I went to bed late last night, it was easily midnight or beyond, and as I lay there on the edge of sleep, I heard an unaccustomed sound. It sounded like…birdsong. I listened closely. It was, indeed, birdsong. And not just little chirps or the otherworldly radar sounds of an owl.

There were two birds, calling to one another, long, complicated tunes that sounded like they were being played on a glass harmonica.

My first thought was: Nightingale.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale. From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale.
From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book

I thought of those lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east…

Imagine knowing, eyes closed and in a darkened room, what time of day it is just by the type of birdsong on the air.

I thought to myself that I had no real idea what a lark sounded like, nor for that matter, a nightingale.

Rather, it was night time, the birdsong didn’t sound owl-like. It wasn’t the sharp chirps of the ever-present flock of sparrows that live in the vines on our house, and I know nightingales sing at night. Deductive reasoning, not actual familiarity.

The above video shows 3-D digital sound sculptures of nightingale and canary song, created by Australian artist Andy Thomas, who begins his work “by listening to the sound carefully, going for a walk, and concentrating on the sound.”

But do they sing in autumn?

Yes, apparently, because they are on a migratory route to the south for the winter.

Research has shown that songbirds share similar ‘gene products’ for vocalizations that humans use for speech. So what we hear as song might be, for the birds, a rich conversation, good as a book, engaging as a movie. Better, probably, because it’s theirs.

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation. Artist: Andy Thomas

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation.
Artist: Andy Thomas

After all, other research has shown that dolphins call each other by name, using a ‘signature whistle’ to identify themselves, and using others’ signatures to call individuals. And let’s not forget the mice who ‘sing’ to each other in ultrasonic melodies, and have vocalization brain patterns that resemble humans – and songbirds.

Think of all the conversations we are missing because we either can’t hear them, or don’t speak the language, or have forgotten how to listen.

Wall of Sound

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) Image via: 123rf.com

Common Blackbird (Turdus merula)
Image via: 123rf.com
Listen to a blackbird sing here.

It started raining today after a few days of sun, and the birds outside in the garden are berserk with spring joy. There’s a symphony of birdsong that I can hear even through shut windows. The chorus changes, rises, falls, and is (rarely) silent for just a moment, as if all the birds are catching their breath at an agreed pause in the music.

The calming effect of birdsong has always been known. In our technological age,the effect we could usually only get by being outside, or having a window open where birds are singing, is being implemented in a variety of ways. Our human predisposition, won over the millennia, is to assume that when birds are singing, we are safe – it’s only when they all stop singing that we need to be concerned. Birdsong heralds the dawn, when birds slowly fall silent in the evening it is time to rest.

I noticed when flying through a few airports recently – in the UK and in the United States – that birdsong filled some of the corridors upon arrival. I thought it was a funny but oddly pleasant choice of background noise, but as it turns out it was calculated and intentional. Researchers and marketers are figuring out how to implement birdsong soundscapes to do everything from calm frazzled travellers, raise office productivity, relax patients in doctors’ offices and improve sales.

Some birds, like songbirds and parrots, are able to alter and modify their vocalizations, learn new tunes. According to Erich Jarvis, a researcher in neurobiology at Duke University, “Vocal learners all have a connection, or pathway, between neurons in the forebrain — a brain region that helps control vocal learning — and neurons in the brainstem, which control the muscles involved in producing innate vocalizations.” These birds share this type of pathway with a few mammals, including humans.

I’m not sure what this means for our ability to communicate directly with our avian friends.

I’ve been told, however, that a friend’s cockatoo once landed on his knee, set her eyes on him beadily, and said, “I can talk.” “Yes, you can talk,” responded my friend. The bird clucked, then went on, “I can talk. Can you fly?”

Just in case you haven’t heard it in a while, you can test the effects of birdsong for yourself. Here’s an good hour of the stuff. The video has a nice discussion of the difference between bird calls and birdsong.


Jarvis Lab – Neurobiology of Vocal Communication

BrainFacts.org article – Connecting Birdsong to Human Speech by Mary Bates

BBC article – The surprising uses for birdsong by Denise Winterman

Wonderful site of birdsong from around the world – xeno-canto.org