A regent honeyeater in the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

In our woods we usually hear the birds return before we see them.

The chickadees were singing their two-note song in mid-March. Woodpeckers have been hammering away more abundantly than usual, despite the clear-cutting that clanked and sawed all winter in the woods next door. The phoebes are right on schedule — fee-bee, fee-bee — winging in and out of the garage where they’re refurbishing last year’s nest. Canada geese honking on for spring. I heard the first song sparrow at the Unity park in mid-April, what a melody, purer than anything heard on my phone, even the Beatles.

I find this singing, squawking, tapping and drumming quite beautiful, despite the fact it seems to be diminishing, spring over spring. A kind of music.

Birdsong, though, is also talking. Different calls, songs and woodpecker drumming transmit signals with fairly specific meanings among birds of the same species, about territories, mating rituals, danger, locations and, no doubt, other meanings. Many wildlife biologists do not like to call these signals language, because well-narrowed definitions of language usually start to include words. There’s not much evidence that birds are uttering words.

They do, however, have cultures. They live in groups, as one summary definition puts it, that “share distinctive behaviours that are persistent over time and maintained via the social transmission of behaviour within and between generations.” Older songbirds teach young birds the songs that enable communication about territories, mating, danger — what it takes to survive and, dare we add, thrive. When the quality of the songs breaks down, trouble ensues.

Regent honeyeaters (Anthochaera phrygia), a songbird that lives in southwestern Australia, are critically endangered. Since the mid-20th century their population has plummeted from flocks of hundreds seen all over their range, to just a few hundred birds total. The main cause of their population decline is destruction of their habitat. Exacerbating their plight, a study found, is the fact that the birds are losing their songs. Older male regent honeyeaters traditionally pair up with young, unrelated males and teach them the courtship and territory-marking songs. Different versions of the songs are sung in different areas. The researchers found that “the complexity of species-specific regent honeyeater songs has declined over time. Male songs recorded between 1986 and 2011 were longer and had more syllables than contemporary songs.” They think this deterioration in the complexity and length of the songs is due partly to “copying errors.” The fewer birds there are, the fewer possibilities for correction, and the deteriorated songs pass forward generation over generation at ever-diminishing quality.

Maybe this would be OK, except that the birds singing the deteriorated songs stand a significantly worse chance of mating successfully. “Among paired males, those whose songs differed from the regional cultural norm were significantly less likely to initiate a nest that reached the egg stage.” As the birds’ numbers decline, the birds’ songs decline; and the more the songs decline, the more the birds decline.
Deterioration in song quality literally leads to deterioration in life.

Humans have been sharing distinctive behaviors by transmitting information from generation to generation for tens of thousands of years, at least. Presumably this is, in bald evolutionary terms, a matter of survival. For quite a long time, the information was transmitted and preserved through language in stories, myths, that were usually sung or chanted. Some of the stories contained instructions for living. (See, e.g., the ancient epics, the Buddhist sutras, the Bible.) Some contained hair-raisingly sophisticated factual information, about, for example, the sun, stars, planets and their circuits.

By 2,400 or so years ago, music was thought to contain such important soul-information, so to speak, that Plato tried to sort its beneficial from its harmful kinds; the discussion involved, to a large extent, the mysteries of harmony.

Humans are not birds. But why people keep liking Mozart, Tchaikovsky, the Beatles and birdsong, is a question. So is why the sound quality on my phone is abysmal.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] His book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” will be available soon from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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