Out of the Mouths of Birds
Is there a human language without birdsong in it? Right or wrong, we think of speech as having evolved from song, and birds sang before we did. Their existence preceded ours, and their calls range more widely than that of any other animal: from the air, from the ground, over bodies of water, they seem to communicate not only with one another but with and from something originary—like the elements themselves. In fact, birds did evolve their calls and songs by echoing the sounds of their environment, turning the ambient into the meaningful and then mimicking one another doing it. As with humans, specific environments promote dialects. Migratory birds amalgamate “a world-music mix” into their repertoire in their flights across continents. Urban dwellers, to overcome the habitual clamor, have shorter, faster and higher-frequency songs than their country cousins. Species that live in trees have a richer vocabulary than species that live in the open. Aquatic birds make the least complex calls.
No wonder that, from the medieval Sufi poem “The Conference of the Birds” to the English nursery rhyme “Cock Robin” to the birds of the caucus-race in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, our mythologies have paired birds and discourse. We’ve put our arguments in the mouths of birds, and we’ve tried, like John Keats and Walt Whitman, to imagine the songs they would sing if they were human. On the simplest level, as naturalists, we’ve tried to hear them as they really are. In Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice, one character tells another that the female owl calls gewick, gewick, while the male calls ooo-ooo. I have had an ear out for gewick, gewick ever since. Most recently I sought it in the glossary of John Bevis’s aaaaw to zzzzzd: The Words of Birds (MIT; $12.95). Still no luck. But then I found it—transcribed as kee-wick, attributed to the tawny owl, in the “Lexicon for Great Britain and Northern Europe.” Someone hears a g, and another hears a k; this is typical, according to this English writer and author, for in the hundreds of years that we have been transcribing bird words into English, we have not arrived at any consensus. Bevis sets out to change that—or at least, to ask if it’s possible (or desirable) to force consensus.
aaaaw to zzzzzd is a miraculous little book: a compressed encyclopedia of our fascination with avifauna. But at its crux is the notion that we can’t quite get a handle on sound—that perhaps birds’ vocalizations and our ears are incommensurable, just as their syrinx and our larynx are different organs. This incommensurability has driven us to heights of ingenuity, and perhaps depths of dementedness. We’ve invented bird whistles with bladders and bellows, twisting keys and slides; we’ve invented flageolets and serinettes for ladies to teach their pet birds human compositions; we’ve outfitted clocks and boxes with songbird automata. In 1910 the German birder Karl Reich first transmitted a birdsong by gramophone; he later perfected his technique by running cables from an electrical microphone in the field to a recording plant about a mile away.
But what does birdsong sound like when transcribed into human speech? Those besotted with the subject have left us a legacy of “a glorious vocabulary of thousands of unique words,” according to Bevis: “a muddled, contentious, and inconsistent vocabulary, the harvest of the jottings of different naturalists in different places, who hear differently and record differently, whose variation is boundless and consensus occasional.” He goes on to compare our transcriptions of birdsong to spelling in Elizabethan times, before the first English-language dictionaries.
Why is it so difficult to transcribe birdsong? For one thing, “Each bird may sing differently from time to time,” and certainly from place to place, as those city- and country-cousins may attest. For another, “No two people classify bird sounds exactly alike.” Murdoch’s gewick, gewick is Bevis’s kee-wick. Bevis’s twin glossaries of bird transcriptions—one for North America, one for Great Britain and Northern Europe—were culled from a database compiled of single filing cards for each species of bird, noting all the transcriptions he could find. He then selected those that were “most commonly agreed on by different observers, choosing the most plausible where there were close variations, picking those that sounded right to me, discarding those that seemed unpronounceable or at odds with the consensus.”
The resulting lists comprise two distinct kinds of poetries: the Dada kind (pleeek; plick; plid-plid) and the lyrical-descriptive kind (black-necked stilt; laughing gull; northern shoveler; oystercatcher). The guide to pronunciation offers precise instructions:
the call of the buzzard is written meeoo peeoo, which seems to me accurate and plausible. But I’m not sure I ever hear that initial m or p…. Meeoo is a searching, tentative call, peeoo more insistent, the ricochet following a pent-up breath. To imitate them, or articulate as close as we can to them, we must shape an m or a p with our mouths before letting go the eeoo sound.
Bevis goes on to explain that the spelling conventions that he used for aaaaw (black skimmer), je-dit je-dit (ruby-crowned kinglet) and zzzzzd (lazuli bunting) have a method to their madness:
Our bird words may include as many adjacent repetitions as we like, and in pronunciation we have to learn to distinguish between aaarr, arr, and arrr.... Multisyllabic sounds may be written as a single word, or with each component separated by a hyphen or word space. While the distinction is to some degree intuitive, there is an intention that, for example, si si si should be read differently from si-si-si or sisisi, and krrr from kr-r-r.
Even so, method and madness can’t be completely separated: “my intention is that the book can be used as a serious field guide and must be as accurate as possible. On the other hand, the idea of transcribing birdsong into human language does seem slightly absurd.”
The lines between absurdity, amusement and instruction can be productively blurred. Just as bird whistles double as children’s toys, and children’s toys double as pedagogical tools, the obsession with the language of birds inspires language games that branch off into speculation or fancy. Bevis’s book includes a list of American and British mnemonics for selected birdsongs, and with a little imagination it can be heard as a third kind of poetry:
are you awake? me too (great horned owl)
but-I-DO-love-you (eastern meadowlark)
cheerily, cheer-up, cheerily (American robin)
drop it, drop it, pick it up, pick it up (brown thrasher)
fire, fire, where, where, here, here (indigo bunting)
purity purity purity (bluebird)
spit and see if I care, spit! (white-eyed vireo)
teacher, teacher (great tit)
who cooks for you (white-winged dove)
These are like reverse-homophonic translations, turning phonetic nonsense into merely English nonsense. They seem like the beginnings of great nursery rhymes, or their kin—love songs.
Songs are much rarer than calls in the bird kingdom, but any line drawn between them will be as fuzzy as a chickadee. The interesting thing is that neither is entirely innate; species of the open-ended-learning kind continue to acquire new tunes throughout their lives, incorporating novel phrases and sounds into their repertoires, and this involves steady practice, something called “subsong,” which is “a quiet rehearsal in which the birds seems to be singing to itself…an odd repertoire of fragments of full song with snatches of imitations of other species.” In other words, one of the things we’ve learned from birds is that the smart ones with the complex and melodious tunes experiment, experiment, experiment.