Songsters

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring continues to haunt us with remembrance of all the Earth is losing. It calls us repeatedly to realise how beautiful are the lives of others, and how precious. With remembrance comes sadness: how lonely and grief-stricken are the silences. And as Paul Shepard reminds us, Silent Spring is also a warning against ‘the deafened self, against emptiness’. Two kinds of violence, then: the silencing of others, and the shutting down of one’s own capacity to hear.

Recently I listened to a radio documentary made with and about my friend Hollis Taylor. Hollis is a musician and composer, as well as a deeply serious student of birdsong. For nine years now, she has been recording and analysing the music of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) in various regions of Australia. Central Australia is one of her research areas, and from time to time her friend Jane Ulman, sound artist and radio director, accompanies her. The radio show ‘Bird Interrupted’ takes listeners on a trip through the MacDonnell Ranges with two remarkable artists, listening not only to birdsong but also to a delightful array of human characters (listen here).

Hollis Taylor, Photo: Jane Ulman
Hollis Taylor,
Photo: Jon Rose

Hollis explains that the key features that mark birdsong as music are: the fact that it is learned (not innate), and that it is improvisational. Not only do birds learn to sing by being taught by other birds, but individuals develop their own musical repertoires. Some of them are wonderfully creative – a joy not only to other birds, but to humans as well.

Her research asks the probing question: ‘Is birdsong music?’ Most of us probably think we know the answer to this question, and we may well wonder why it even needs to be asked. The question is provocative because music is one of the markers selected to show that humans are different and special creatures. According to those who seek to sustain an impassable boundary between us (humans) and all the others (our Earth kin), our capacity for music (along with language and other capabilities) makes humans exceptional.

Pied butcherbird research tells a different story. At certain times of year, these birds perform solos for up to six hours a night. It is helpful to have a good ear in order to appreciate the musical complexities of pied butcherbird song. Hollis’s description (with sound bites) of the main motif in the Alice Springs region is further brought to life by her presentation of some of the regional and individual variations on the main theme. I was enthralled to be introduced to music that, left to my own devices, I would have heard as beautiful but been unable to understand in its complexity.

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

‘Bird Interrupted’ is a great reminder that one of the outstanding characteristics of planet Earth is that living beings communicate. One of the great desires of many life forms is the desire to put sound out into the world – to announce, to call, to communicate, to seduce, and much more.

Our planet is not only blue, watery, and filled with cycles of nutrients, it is symphonic.

At the recent conference ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’, Richard Nelson spoke about our musical Earth. Richard is an Alaskan anthropologist whose life is dedicated to participatory learning with Indigenous people and to documenting the sounds of life and shaping them into radio programs. Richard takes an expansive view of ‘the singing planet’, including wind, water, ice and animals, amongst others, as ‘voices’. They and we are all part of the ‘single language of living things’, he tells us. The video of his engaging speech is now posted online (view here).

Richard also brought up another form of violence: human din. Our species is getting noisier, as well as more numerous, and noise is a hallmark of the Anthropocene. We are acoustically crowding out others and even worse, we are assaulting them. Whales and other marine mammals, for example, are among many Earth creatures whose lives are threatened by lethal sound. Navy sonar and other underwater high-decibel noise has such terrible impacts on whales and others that one orca researcher calls it an ‘accoustic holocaust’.

Many of the animals who are under acoustical assault are themselves songsters. According to Hollis, ‘about half of the world’s approximately 10,000 bird species are songbirds, so distinguished because they learn their song. Intriguingly, vocal learning is rare; our closest primate relatives, for example, are not vocal learners. Even the elaborate song bouts of gibbons are innate. Aside from songbirds, to date this capacity appears limited to hummingbirds and parrots (and possibly a few other avian groups), as well as marine mammals, elephants, and bats.’

Humpback Whale  by Andrew Schaefer
Humpback Whale by Andrew Schaefer (CC)

While pied butcherbirds are singing their themes and variations in Central Australia, humpback whales are singing their way through the oceans. A recent study of whale song, undertaken by Ellen Garland, a University of Queensland PhD student, identified eleven different humpback whale song types. They ‘typically started in the eastern Australian population and spread in a step-wise fashion across the region to French Polynesia’. In a fascinating interview (view here), Ellen explains that the cultural innovation taking place here is extremely unusual in non-human culture. Only males sing, and it seems they want to stand out from the crowd. A new song is a stand-out performance. It is adopted as a novelty, but soon becomes what everyone is doing, and so males develop new songs. Every two years or so, a new song comes into being.

The desire to express one’s presence vocally is, for many creatures, integral to their living self.

I learned this the sad way when I picked up a severely injured sulphur-crested cockatoo and put it in the car to take to the vet. On the way, the bird died. Before he died, however, he let loose his last raucous call, as if unwilling to leave silently. I knew it was the end when I heard him, and I felt kinship as well as sorrow in the presence of his desire to make a final acoustical mark showing that he had lived and been part of the world.

In life as well as in death, we are songsters, many of us. A couple of years ago I travelled with my friend Jim Hatley, philosopher, artist and poet, to Central Australia. We visited gorges along the MacDonnell Ranges, including one of my favourites – Trephina Gorge. After hiking along the top country, we went down into the dry river bed. We walked on pale sand amidst tall river gums whose single great tap root shoots down into the underground water; and like a quiet miracle in this dry country, we saw small birds whose presence signals water. Around a bend we came upon a permanent waterhole no more than a few meters across in any direction.

'Zebra finch 4', by Jim Bendon
‘Zebra finch 4’, by Jim Bendon (CC)

The country was pulsing with life, both visible and hidden. Jim paused under the shade of a river gum to sing. His voice moved up and down the gorge, honouring this place and giving something in return. As he poured forth his praise, the finches gathered. Small, elegant songbirds of desert and waterhole, they settled in the tree above him as he sang.

We are songsters to the core of our being, but we are not therefore alone or exceptional.

Amongst the great and varied kindred of Earth life, blessed are the singers of new songs ~ they bring creativity, along with all this great wild beauty, to the symphony of life.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources

Silent Spring was first published in 1962, and is still in print. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27333.Silent_Spring

The quote from Paul Shepard comes from his book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1640911.The_Others

Hollis is the co-author of a fascinating article about lyre birds that is available online: http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.3.pdf

Richard Nelson’s most beloved book is Make Prayers to the Raven. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/134644.Make_Prayers_to_the_Raven

Some of Jim Hatley’s inspired work can be encountered at his website: http://geoaesthetics.blogspot.com.au/

5 thoughts on “Songsters

  1. Gidday Deborah,
    well that was a very interesting read about those different animals and birds.

    I have also found with dingoes and their howling, there is also an orchestrated effort of individuals who have their own repertoire which last for about 40 -60 secs.
    One will start up then they all join in.
    Then suddenly they all stop together.
    Simply amazing.

    I have found when I join in and try to imitate their howls, that Kirra, my Fraser Island dingo will then copy my inflections of pitch.
    At first I thought it was my imagination, but I have since understood they also have this mental telepathy , so all in all in is a very interesting experience.
    For some people is it a pleasant spine chilling sound of our ancient past.

    It is just a sad pity that our Govts don’t appreciate the beautiful and fragile environment and ecosystem we dominate and destroy thru habitat destruction.

    1. Thanks, Dingo Simon – Your info on dingo howling/singing is very much appreciated. In the radio program I discussed, ‘Bird Interrupted’, they also visit Dinky the singing dingo. It is very affecting. At the same time, it seemed so important that I wanted to save writing about it till later when I could do it justice. Hollis found, as you are saying, that dingoes have a great sense of pitch. Maybe it isn’t mental telepathy exactly – maybe it is that they understand how to harmonise, even with us! That’s a ‘wow’ thought! cheers, Debbie

  2. Thank you for introducing Hollis Taylor’s music – her piece ‘Trailer Park Trash’ is wonderful. Do you know of Oliver Messiaen’s compositions based on birdsong? His ‘Le traquet stapazin’ (Black-eared Wheatear) is a favourite of mine (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JE4vSviuoSw).

    When we moved from Sydney up here to Narara late last year, we were enchanted by the singing of the butcherbirds. My sister and I would wake up early to listen to them; their voices are liquid and sweet and changeable, shifting to sudden dissonances and glooms. A pair and their fledging have been spending a lot of time around the garden, and lately have even been venturing up onto the deck to sing (and possibly also to scout for easy meals!).

    We were also lucky enough to be able to record the singing of a lyrebird when we went walking in Strickland Forest in January. I’ve uploaded the file here if anyone wants to have a listen: http://soundcloud.com/marcus_harvey/lyrebird-in-strickland-forest

    1. You are indeed lucky!
      Thanks for the link to Messiaen, and for your lyrebird file.
      Both are much appreciated, Cheers, Deborah

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