Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Birds Sing -- book review

Red-winged blackbird singing on the marsh, March 24, 2008

Why do birds sing so gay?
--Frankie Lymon

I’ve finally finished reading David Rothenberg’s Why Birds Sing, in which the author both looks at the extensive scientific (and other) research on birdsong and conducts his own little studies by playing music for birds.

The book is interesting in many places, and Rothenberg’s writing is at times clever but at times irritating. For instance, here’s a passage in which his jazzy little sentences work; he’s playing various instruments for the birds in the Wetlands room of Pittsburgh’s National Aviary, a place with which we are all now familiar:

Wittgenstein had the nerve to warn us that if a lion could talk, we would not understand him. Can you be so sure, Herr Ludwig? If a lion roars, we do understand him. If a cat purrs, we understand her. And if the voice of an animal is not heard as message but as art, interesting things start to happen: Nature is no longer an alien enigma, but instead something immediately beautiful, an exuberant opus with space for us to join in. Bird melodies have always been called songs for a reason. As long as we have been listening, people have presumed there is music coming out of those scissoring beaks.
But there are many times where his crazily loose writing style bleeds over into the organization of the book, which isn’t a good thing. The book just seems like it’s all over the place. Cutesy chapter titles like “Your Tune or Mine?” and “The Canary’s New Brain” don’t really help to clarify what he’s trying to do in each chapter, so they all tend to run together in a flurry of opinions and theories by a bunch of different scientists and other researchers. By the time I was halfway through the book, I was exhausted, and I already knew the author’s answer to the title question: Birds sing because they love to do it. But I still wasn’t sure I believed him.

There are some interesting theories explored: territoriality, warning and other necessary communications, mating, etc., but as I said, it’s all kinda jumbled together. Still, it was interesting to learn about the many experiments and studies that have been done on birdsong. Some interesting notes:
--Many researchers have tried various methods of notation to “capture” birdsong, from making up crazy syllables to drawing funky little lines, to actual musical notation. The funniest part was the guy who tried to write out the notes to a bobolink’s song and ended up with a jumble of notes with their stems pointing in all directions on the staff. He got stumped by the bobolink.
--Starlings are excellent mimics and songsters. Further, they are somehow able to “place [our] sounds in context,” making the author wonder whether they have “a sense of themselves in our environment.” They take bits of the things they hear, from the humming of fluorescent lights to human songs (even Mozart!) and incorporate whatever snippets or riffs they enjoy.
--Some birds learn only the songs they hear during the first couple of years of their lives, while some—the mockingbird, for instance—learn new sounds and songs during their entire lives.
--Thoreau loved the song of the Wood Thrush, just like I do: “It changes all hours to eternal morning. It banishes all trivialness.” Amen, Henry!
--Here’s a really cool Navajo blessing:
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again
It has become beauty again

I have to be honest; I started skimming when I got about 3/4s of the way through. It just wasn’t holding my attention enough, and you know this kind of geeky stuff usually does. I dig the subject, but this kind of exhaustive exploration of the past and present study of it just wasn’t that interesting for me.

If you’re interested in reading the book yourself, please let me know and I can loan it to you. I always thought it would be neat to have a sort-of birders’ library between us, mailing books to each other and then returning them. Interested?


KGMom said...

Delia--I won't get into a book swap with you--on account of 1) I have many books, but none on birds; and 2) I was counting on you to summarize Why Birds Sing!

Tina said...

I enjoyed reading your interpretation of Why Birds Sing...and would have thought it was simply for communication purposes but man seems to alwasy feel there are other complex facets to nature..I don't think I would have the 'sticktuitive' (is that a word?) to stay with this book but found your thoughts interesting..esp liked the native Am. poem!

dguzman said...

KGMom--oh you!

Tina--glad you enjoyed the review. I wish I'd enjoyed the book more, but I did learn some interesting stuff. And yeah--that blessing is awesome! Need to memorize it.