Art. 47.—New Zealand and other Bird-song: Further Notes.
[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 19th July, 1921; received by Editor, 20th July, 1921; issued separately, 18th June, 1923.]
The notes following have been recorded since publication of the last series, in 1918. As before, for convenience of reference, the variations in the notes of each species of bird have been numbered consecutively from (1) onwards, the earlier numbers appearing in Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. 41, p. 422; vol. 43, p. 656; vol. 45, p. 387; vol. 47, p. 593; vol. 49, p. 519; vol. 50, p. 282.
Grey Warbler (Pseudogerygone igata).
The warbler sings many rhythmical phrases, a considerable number of which have been recorded. No. (40) is a characteristic one, in slow, swinging 2 time, heard in Wellington. It has also been noted that every different locality appears to have a song that is not heard elsewhere, in addition to the songs common to all localities. No. (41), a phrase in
4 time, was heard at Rotorua, as also was (42), whose triplets were introduced by a triplet falling in quarter-tones. The quaver was at times
Local song was also heard at Hiruharama, on the Wanganui River, as in (43)—(45).
The local nature of many of the songs suggests that the birds remain more or less in one locality of indefinite but comparatively restricted extent. On a review of the songs recorded it seems possible that there may be at least two species of warbler. In all localities with which I am most familiar the warbler has two distinct types of song—one bright and cheery, the other plaintive; the latter being the one more often sung, and subject to the greater amount of variation. The two types as heard around Wellington are best represented by (38a)-(38c), and (29), (29b) (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. 49, pp. 527, 526, 1917). It is the latter type, in, one or more of its many variations, that I hear in parts of New Zealand visited by me only occasionally. In the Stony Bay bush, Banks Peninsula, however, the two types of song are as (13)—(16) (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. 45, p. 394, 1913) and (3) (Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. 41, p. 425, 1909). The second of these is a long, indeterminate, rambling melody, never broken into definite phrases as in other localities, and I have heard it only on the west coast of the South Island besides at Stony Bay; in the latter place it is the invariable song of the second type. Fragments of the indeterminate song may be heard elsewhere, but only fragments; there are definite phrases in addition: in Stony Bay bush the definite phrases are absent. This leads me to suppose that there may be a variety of the warbler on Banks Peninsula, or at least in the South Island.
Pipit (Anthus novae-zealandiae).
Whilst camped at the head of the Godley River Valley in December, 1920, and January, 1921, the pipit was almost the only bird either seen or heard. The camp was pitched at the foot of the last vegetation-covered spur of the Sibbald Range, near the terminal face of the Godley Glacier. From the alpine garden of hillside above I heard, as I thought,
pipits, yellowhammers, and goldfinches. On climbing the spur to catch a sight of the birds, however, I found pipits only. The phrase I had taken for that of a yellowhammer was (2). It resembles that of the yellowhammer very closely not only in length and interval, but also in vocalization. The phrase of the yellowhammer has been likened to the
words little bit of bread and no cheecese. I could not hear these sounds in the pipit's notes; the vocalization was di-di-di-di-di-di-bthee, where some of the vowels agree with the yellowhammer's, but not all. I many times saw the birds that sang all the notes recorded, but never once saw a yellowhammer there, though these were plentiful enough in the lower country The notes were sung about four a second, and there was a burr or throb on the final note, vocalized bthee, in which, too, I fancied I detected an overtone of a fifth, or twelfth.
The common call was as in (3), sung about six notes to the second, the reply being as in (4). If there happened to be no reply to the call (3) after it had been made two or three times, an addition was made, as in (5). This was a plaintive slur, like the slur of a goldfinch or the sweet of a canary. It was hearing this slur, before I saw the birds, that led me to think they were goldfinches on the hillside. The place of the slur was sometimes taken by a vibrato note, half-flattened. The slur was often sounded alone.
Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor).
I had good opportunity for hearing this extraordinary song, if song it may be called, on Kapiti. During stormy weather blue penguins resort to holes under the floor of the whare where we slept; and during one night two birds, for many minutes at a time, kept up this dolorous lamentation. The first notes, long-drawn, and vocalized aaah, seemed expiratory, and were like the imploring cry of a child, crying piteously;
the higher notes following, also long-drawn, and vocalized ooooh, seemed inspiratory, and were like a choking cry, with vibration at the close of the slur. Presumably the birds enjoyed the duet since it was so long-continued, but it seemed rather the despairing lament of two lovers about to be parted for ever, than the crooning of two happily united.
Cicada; Tatarakihi, or Tarakihi (Cicada cingulata).
Whilst this is not a bird, it has a song, and the song was liked by the Maori above all others; indeed, he called the cicada “the bird of Rehua.” Rehua was the lord of kindness, and the reason the Maori held the insect in such estimation was that its cheerful song sounded in the summer when the days were warm and long and food was plentiful. Then the Maori, happy himself, enjoyed the shrill song of the merry cicada. In the hot days of February the Botanical Gardens in Wellington are alive with these insects; the air is literally throbbing and pulsating with their song. On the stem of one cabbage-tree I have seen twelve, close together, chirring and burring and theeping without intermission, and hundreds more round about. Nor do they all sing the same song. Nos. (1) and (2) are from Kapiti, and I am not certain that these were produced by tarakihi, as the song was not so vehement and shrill as the songs I have heard at Wellington. The vowels were all short (as in net, tut), and in the accelerated triplets the vowels seemed omitted, causing a sharper attack on each note; it is this sharp attack that causes the penetrating churr. The d sound is at times t.
There may be one triplet, two, or more. The speed is about five quavers a second. The crescendo on every G flat begins on the slur from the F. In (2) there was always a sharp sound like clip on the first d sound following the churr. The songs (3) to (8) were all sung at one time on the cabbage-tree stem referred to, and there were, besides, other songs; one
apparently did not interfere with another, and not one, apparently, had any consideration for any other. No. (3) consisted almost altogether of click. This sound is produced by the insect snapping its wings, each snap making a click. Usually the songs are punctuated with these snaps, but at times, as in this one, the snaps form the theme, ten or twelve to the second.
In (4) clicks were altogether absent. The notes here were long-drawn, two crotchets a second, the vocalization being a sleepy theep, theep. In (5) a very short theep preceded a long-drawn burr of two seconds duration on a lower note. In (6) there was an unbroken throbbing slur from A to E and down again, from fifteen to twenty beats a second in the throb, with a click, at the bottom of each wave, on the A. The insect sang on and on without intermission, two crochets in three seconds. This was varied as in (7), where there was an upward slur, but a sharp descent to the A. In yet another both slurs were omitted, as in (8). The song (9) was that of a solitary tarakihi singing at dusk, about ten semiquavers a second.
Pihareinga (Acheta campestris).
The song of the pihareinga is altogether different from that of the tarakihi. It is much softer, sounding as if coming from a great distance. The creature lives in the grass; and whereas the song of the tarakihi, which is arboreal, is heard only during a few weeks at the height of summer, the gentle song of the pihareinga may be heard throughout the year; even in winter, a warm day invites him to sing his quiet round. The song may be in triplets, as in (1), vocalized ti-he-he, or chi-he-he. When properly warmed up to his song there are few pauses, but the ti-he-he is followed by a long
vibrato, as in (2). These were heard on a warm sunny day after cold weather. The notes may be in fours, making a quick continuous sound like the turning of a wheel, broken at times by the last note of the fours being softened, or dropped altogether. Very characteristic is (3), where the fourth notes drop in interval a tone. The notes are sometimes vocalized ti-ti-ti-tu, sometimes unvocalized, simply churry, sounding like a small wheel revolving rapidly—a fairy knife-grinder's wheel, the accent and sudden swell at the first note coming at the pressing of the pedal. At Kapiti one burred in triplets on G, dropping a quarter-tone for a time, then up again, and down, and so on, about ten semiquavers a second on the G and fifteen a second on the G half-flat, as in (4).
At Operiki, near Koriniti, Wanganui River, the pihareinga was very voluble during the last week of March (1921), maintaining a continuous churr on G for many minutes at a time, eight or ten notes a second, in the grass of the hillsides. The sound was shrill, but soft and pleasant—not nearly so penetrating as the churr of the tarakihi.
At Gisborne was heard yet another, whose song was of the quality of the pihareinga, a continuous churr on one note. The note was louder, however, but not shrill, and was heard throughout the summer night. I have heard the pihareinga only by day.
Ruru (Ninox novae-zealandiae).
A common call of the ruru (morepork) at Koriniti, Wanganui, was as in (10), vocalized whee-oo whee-oo.
Miromiro (Petroeca toitoi).
The miromiro (white-breasted tit) was common up the Wanganui River, a pleasant song being (3), the four notes, about eight a second, being repeated
from two to four times as shown, sometimes followed by a single G. This song was at times preceded by a higher note, C, repeated four times or more, semiquavers separated by semiquaver rests.
Tui (Prosthemadera novae-zealandiae) and Bell-bird (Anthornis melanura).
It is usually the tui that is credited with the harsh interjectory noises likened to coughs, sneezes, &c. Many of these have been recorded in tui songs, and some in bell-bird songs, Whilst staying at the various Maori settlements on the Wanganui River in March-April, 1921, however, especially whilst at Pipiriki, it was found that the bell-bird uttered these harsh sounds with even greater frequency than the tui; in fact, during one day's walk, when the sounds were heard continually, they were uttered by bell-birds in every instance where the bird was seen. This is further evidence for the contention that it is never safe to record a note as of a tui or bell-bird unless the singer be actually seen.
The fear of the extinction of the indigenous birds led to the recording of their songs. No such fear is felt on account of the introduced birds, and the task of recording their songs has not been undertaken. Since it has been said, however, that it is not possible to record their songs in our musical notation, a few have been recorded from time to time, partly to refute the statement, partly that the notes may be compared with those of the same birds elsewhere.
Californian Quail (? Callipepla californica).
The common call of the quail on Kapiti was as in (1) a, and I can think of no vocalization that is nearer it than the words Miss Harper. This was also the vocalization of quail-calls heard at Motueka. At times the third note was omitted, as in (1) b, and at times the call was on one note, as
in (1) c. A variation not so often heard was (2), where the vocalization was Esther how. Neither the pitch nor the vocalization of the call of the quail agrees with that given by Schubert in “Der Wachtelschlag” (“The
Quail-cry”), nor with that given by Beethoven in his song bearing the same name. Schubert gives the pitch usually as E, Beethoven as B, and both vocalize the notes as Fürchte Gott, the notes in both instances being
In the variant (1) c there is a slight approach to this. Beethoven uses the same notes in his “Pastoral Symphony,” but they are there pitched on D.
Thrush (Turdus musicus).
Soon after moulting is over—say, early in May—the thrush may be heard singing. The birds that start thus early are, I think, old birds, or birds of more than a year old, and their song is full and finished. Young birds start later, and they may be heard regularly practising. One year I heard the first full song on the 30th April, and on the 21st May I saw a young thrush beginning to learn his song. He sat on the top of a low tree overlooking a scrub-bush-grown hillside, and first practised, over and over, the notes of (1) a, being two simple notes of the same pitch, divided by a pause. His next notes were (1) b, where the same notes are in triplets instead of pairs, and these were followed by the first interval (1) c. The vocalization a and b was usually ti or tioo, but when the interval separated the notes the vocalization was wer-tit. Next day the fives of (1) d were practised, in addition to those already acquired. There appeared to be no order in the practising: the pairs of a might be uttered once, twice, or up to four or five times, but usually three times; then c or b once or several times, but b usually twice and c three times; then a again, or d, and so on by the hour. The bird was practising before I was up in the morning; he was still practising when I left for the town before 9 a.m.; while I was at home for lunch, and often when I returned between 5 and 6 p.m., there he sat singing these simple notes over and over. On my way to the town this season I passed five birds practising in this way, every bird having his favourite twig, where he might always be found when singing. On the second day e also was added—a very rapid vibrato, as though the sound were forced through a narrow slit, the membranous edges “giving” as the air passed. It was not a vocalized whistle like the other notes. On this day (22nd May) a downward interval (f) was added, the vocalization again changing to wee-oo, and a combination, as it were, of a and c took
place, g, the interval, however, being a third instead of a second. These notes, too, were true whistles, full and rich in quality. The slower notes of (1) h were also whistles, the high notes, vocalized, somewhat resembling e, in that they sounded as if forced through a narrow aperture, the last four quickening to a vibrato. On the 25th May the familiar phrase i was commenced, vocalized tik too-it (or stick to it), or wee too-it (or we kenew it), and hereafter the song developed rapidly. Up till this day most of the new notes could be taken down, but combinations of three and four notes became multiplied, those recorded being those most often heard. The speed would be four to five quavers a second.
The phrases (1) a-n were taken down whilst going to or returning from work, and there is no doubt that, with sufficient time at disposal for, say, a week, the whole of the phrases used by the bird could be taken down; and, as the song is built up of these phrases, the song itself might readily be recorded. A few more notable phrases have been secured at various times, (2) being in clear, open, staccato whistles, the intervals clearly made. The fine chromatic run of (3) was obtained one evening, the close of a sunny spring day after cloudy, sleety weather—17th August, 1916. The full phrase was sung by two different birds in different parts of the shrubberies along Tinakori Road and the Botanical Gardens. There was a rallentando to the G, when the F was attacked sforzando, and the phrase ended with great spirit. The phrases (5)—(8) were common among the practice notes of August, 1917. The following close of a song by McGillivray well illustrates the vocalization of the notes :—
Qui, qui, qui, kweeu, quip,
Tiurru, tiurru, chipiwi,
Too-tee, too-tee, chiu choo
Chirri, chirri, chosee,
Quiu, qui, qui.
Skylark (Alauda arvensis).
The individual phrases of the skylark's song may be noted in the same way as the thrush's, and the full song recorded. It will have been observed that, among the Maori birds, many have a number of definite songs besides phrases that form the material of song. Among the introduced birds I have seldom heard a definitely repeated song; the many definite phrases are repeated in indefinite combinations, so that whilst the phrases may be recognized, the combinations may not, though this may be because I have devoted more time to the song of the indigenes. When Browning says of the thrush, “He sings each song twice over,” he refers to the phrases—not to the song. There is not nearly the variety in the lark's song that there is in the thrush's, nor has it the wide range of the thrush; in fact, it is surprising how few notes make up the inspiring song. In August, 1917, I sat on the uplands of the Tinakori Hills listening to the larks, and secured, I think, all the phrases used by one singer (1) a-k. The notes are rapid—about ten semiquavers a second. Many birds were singing, and though I watched and listened long, and have done so in many parts of New Zealand from the seashore to Alpine heights, I have not been able to corroborate the statement made by English writers that there is a difference in the song according as the bird is ascending, hovering, or descending. As I watched, the bird would mount, singing, circle for a while, poise with wings and tail widely spread, but apparently motionless, still singing whilst slowly floating downwards; then a turn of the vanes and a swift descent, the song ceasing as the descent began. I could, however, detect no difference in the phrases or combination of phrases, or in the tempo, or in the expression, that would mark ascent, hover, and descent. Constant changes of timbre there are, but the same changes irrespective of position. Sometimes the notes are whistles, sometimes they are vocalized, and differently vocalized, as shown. Pauses, slurs, vibratos, staccato notes, hurryings, and slackenings—all lend charming variety to the few notes employed. It has also been said that the notes keep time to the beating of the wings: I have been able to detect no such correspondence. The manner of combination of the phrases is shown in (3),
which scrap of song would take from ten to twelve seconds. The average length of song at this time of the year (August) was about a minute.
No. (2) are a few phrases from a song heard on Kapiti. The vocalization of the song is very well reproduced by Du Bartas in the following :—
La gentille allouette avec son tire-lire
Tire lire a lire et tire-lirant tire
Vers la voute du ciel, pecis son vol vers ce lieu
Vire et desire dire adieu Dieu, adieu Dieu.
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs).
This was the favourite cage song-bird in Germany. Twelve distinct songs were recognized and named, and of these twelve the second, fourth, sixth, and ninth had two varieties, the seventh and eighth had three, and the fifth had five varieties—all named. The names were apparently given for varied vocalizations as well as for different themes, and the bird was a favourite not only on account of his vigorous, cheerful song, but also on account of his bold bearing and fine colouring. The usual call-note is, as in (1), a single note, or in sets of two or three, uttered sharply at
the rate of about five a second. This is probably the call fink, which is said to have given the bird its name. The most usual song about Wellington is (2), a chromatic drop of varied interval followed by a pause and a final flourish of varied vocalization. This song occupies from a second and a half to two seconds in utterance. In (3) is shown a characteristic terminal flourish.
Hedge-warbler, or Hedge-sparrow (Accentor modularis).
This is the only one of the British warblers that has been acclimatized. The song is a quick vocalized warble, generally hovering about one note. At times intervals are attempted, and these are often less than semitones. The vocalization is much varied. Whilst there is a great deal of indefiniteness in the song, and much of it appears to be sung in a haphazard, absent-minded way, there are many phrases that are apparently the result of a wakening perception of melody in the bird, and not of blind accident. The phrases (1)—(4) show a hovering about one note, and much of the song consists of nothing but such hovering—very pleasant, but little varied except in vocalization. Yet even phrases like these appear to present themselves with definiteness to the bird's ear, for at times one or other or their like may be repeated. The phrase (2), for instance, sung in about a second, was repeated many times with an interval of a second between the repetitions. Phrase (3), and its variant (4) were repeated in a similar way for minutes at a time. Whilst there is little variation in the outline of (5), the strain contains a definite theme, and it is in perfect common time, warbled allegro, the octave slur and the vibrato note ending alternate bars. There is a curious elusiveness in the tempo of (6), caused by a slight pause on the second note of the triplets: the definite intervals are also unusually wide. The tempo is quite definite
in (7), a phrase which displays considerable art. The first two triplets were accented on the first note, but in the third triplet the accent was omitted, the first two notes of the triplet were slightly hurried, and a trace of the lost accent was heard on the A flat. The earliest song heard
in 1917, on 27th March, was (8), also in perfect time—a bright, cheerful song, sung at the rate of eight semiquavers a second. The song was unusually early, as the hedge-warbler generally starts singing in Wellington about July, the last month of winter, singing on till the moult in the hot weeks of January.
Psychology of Bird-Song.
Assuming bird-song to be a secondary sexual character, many facts can be brought forward in support of the assumption. Regarded from another point of view, however, bird-song may be seen as a characteristic quite apart from sex, but upon which on occasion sex seizes for its own end; and many equally cogent facts can be brought forward in support of this view. Many emotional elements mingle at the source of song, be it bird-song or human song, the sex-emotion being but one. Song is a flowering of the emotions, as speech is a flowering of the thought.
Mudie (MF, vol. 1, p. 273 et seq.) notes “the connection between the song and the plumage, and the silence and the moult”; and remarks that it “shows that the whole bird is subject to some general law, which, though it lies deep beyond the power of our divination, governs
even the minutest circumstance—the production of a new spot or gloss on a feather, the reddening of a comb or a wattle, or the inspiration of courage into birds naturally timid. The birds, in fact, blossom in spring as well as the plants, and when the purpose of nature is accomplished the bloom of the one is shed as well as that of the other. But if the purpose of nature in continuing the race is not accomplished the bloom lingers.” In the last sentence Mudie reveals his point of view—he regards the song as sexual; but he is wrong when he says the bloom is shed when the purpose of nature (or what he assumes to be the purpose of nature) is accomplished: song in birds extends before and beyond the breeding season; in some birds, like the thrush, it is interrupted only by the moult. No doubt it is finer during the breeding season, but then it does but augment with the general flowering of that season.
It is supposed that caged birds sing for a far longer period than they do in nature, not because their surroundings are more conducive to song, but because the functions that called the song into being have not been fulfilled. Mudie contends that no caged bird sings with the full power and freedom of the woodland song. Bolton, on the contrary, asserts (BH, vol. 2, pp. 28–29) that “in its wild state the nightingale sings only during some ten weeks of the year; but in confinement will continue its song for nine or ten months; and a caged nightingale sings with infinitely more sweetness than those abroad.” In this “sweetness” Mudie recognizes “a blending of the cry of irritation and distress.” The two writers hear different qualities in the same song, each influenced by his own feelings.
A consideration of the period at which the song of various birds is at its perfection makes it evident that there is a mingling of various emotions in that passion of melody. The song of the nightingale continues day and night through the period of incubation, but ceases almost immediately on the hatching of the brood, when the sweet notes degenerate to a guttural croak. If, however, when the song has thus ebbed away, the nest be destroyed or its contents removed the lost voice is speedily recovered, and the song is heard once more (TB, p. 149 et seq.—quoting from Newton's Dictionary). It would appear to be altogether a mating and brooding song; but there are modifying facts to follow. The thrush, on the other hand, sings through the greater part of the year; and other birds, such as the robin and the water-ousel, sing during autumn as well as summer; and on this fact Darwin comments (DD, p. 370), “Nothing is more common than for animals to take pleasure in practising whatever instinct they follow at other times for some real good.” From the other point of view it might be said. Nothing is more common than for the sexual instinct to seize and use as incentive some quality that at all times gives pleasure.
Is it a sexual instinct that impels the male birds to precede the females in their migration? The males of most of the summer wood-warblers appear as much as a fortnight before the females (WW, p. 59), and immediately commence their song. The song is at first immature, gradually reaching its full perfection during the time the males are alone (CW, pp. 115–16). It is hardly likely that they sing without experiencing pleasure from their song, even in the absence of the females: can it be supposed that their pleasure is heightened by anticipation? Have they anything of the human emotion whereby
We look before and after;
We sigh for what is not?
It is probable that the song is an indication of the awakening and the stirring of sexual emotions, as the scent of the flower is an indication that it is ready for the touch of the pollen-grains; but the song comes with the emotions, not because of them—or why are so many birds songless? It is during this period of probationary song that the bird-catchers trap the nightingale. The birds then caught may be trained to become fine songsters; but if, after the arrival of the females, a male be trapped whose singing has secured him a mate, not only will he be of no use as a cage song-bird, but he will in all probability die in confinement (YH, vol. 1, p. 319, ed. 3). Bechstein (BC), an ardent bird-fancier, though he can hardly be called a bird-lover, states that the nightingale's song is perfect before the arrival of the females, and that it deteriorates immediately on their arrival; so that, if it be a mating-song at all, it is rather a prothalamium than an epithalamium. It will be noted that Yarrell simply assumes that the singing of the male has secured him a mate. If the singing did so, or could do so, why should the song deteriorate at the very time it should be at its highest excellence? May it not be that the increased spring-vitality finds expression in song whilst the females are absent, and is diverted to the passion of mating when the females do arrive? One reason for the song being usually confined to the male is that the superabundant energy that in the male is transformed to song or to colour, in the female is absorbed in egg-laying and rearing. To this idea objection can also, of course, be urged by pointing out exceptions.
Further, if the precession of the males be a sexual instinct, it is not undertaken solely in order that the song may be practised without the distraction caused by the presence of the females, since the males of most migratory birds, whether singers or not, appear before the females (DD, p. 212). So that the fact that the blackcap, nightingale, and other warblers practise their song before the arrival of the females would appear to be as much incidental as significant. Swallows usually arrive in pairs (WW, p. 59).
Is the song to be considered sexual when both sexes sing, as do the tui and bell-bird? I have detected no difference in the songs of the male and female tui. The song of the male bell-bird is quite different from that of the female, but the song of the latter is heard far more frequently; I have heard the song hundreds of times, but have heard the song of the male only twice.
Is there a single recorded instance (except, perhaps, amongst caged birds) of a female having shown that the song of the male attracted her? I have never seen a single instance. Twice I have seen a male blight-bird start his song, the female immediately flying to the attack, compelling him to desist. I have seen a tui sidling towards a female, singing a charming whisper-song—and the female sought refuge in flight. When the cicadas are singing in their thousands, never once has a female been seen to approach the joyous males; neither has a female thrush ever been seen to approach the male singing by the hour on the tree-top; nor has the song, either of cicada or thrush, lessened in consequence, either in volume or charm. If it be said that the female shows subsequently that she acknowledged the attraction, how is it known?
Birds appear to sing in emulation; and, whilst emulation may indirectly be connected with courtship, birds will sing in emulation when courtship has ended successfully in the securing of a mate—when it may, indeed, be said that emulation has passed in a natural course to exultation.
Bolton (BH, vol. 1, p. 15) writes of the blackbird, “When two are singing at the same time within hearing of each other they will contend in song like the nightingale, each keeping silence alternately till the other has repeated his song.” Birds are often matched in song by fanciers, and will at times, at such contests, sing themselves to death; and some naturalists believe that singing is almost exclusively the effect of rivalry and emulation (DD, pp. 369–70). The editor of White's Selborne remarks (WS, p. 123) in a note that the song of the swallow exhibits no appearance of emulation, but that” it seems to proceed from feelings of happiness and complacency, which cannot be mistaken. I like to watch it darting now and then to its nest, and uttering that little note of love which is responded to by the female whilst she is performing her task of incubation…” On this point, how is it known that the brooding female pays special regard to the song of her mate? How is it known that she does not pay equal regard to the song of every bird singing within hearing? There is always the human analogy; and the human analogy, if we be honest, will lead us to most varying conclusions.
Again, is it sexual desire, or emulation, or pleasure that induces one bird to imitate the notes of another—more, to incorporate the songs of others into its own, with characteristic modifications, as is done by the blackcap? This imitation is even said by one writer (YH, vol. 1, p. 420, ed. 4), to detract from the excellence of the bird's natural song. The imitation of other sounds by the starling is constantly referred to. The sedge-warbler is said to imitate the notes of other birds, particularly those of the sparrow, swallow, and skylark, and has often been called the English mocking-bird. “It execute's its imitations in rather a hurried but very pleasing manner” (BH, vol. 2, p. 69). True mocking-birds show the extreme to which imitation may be carried; but if imitation detract from the quality of the song, would that not be a fatal disadvantage were the song purely sexual? A certain amount of imitation is, no doubt, common enough, and Witchell (WE, pp. 165 et seq.) quotes many writers to this effect, the mimicking birds being the redstart, blackcap, sedge-warbler, marsh-warbler, reed-warbler, whitethroat, skylark, whinchat, stonechat, wheat-ear, greenfinch, &c.; and Witchell himself (WE, pp. 195 et seq., and 201 et seq.) produces tables showing various bird-notes imitated by thrush, robin, skylark, starling, sedge-warbler, the different kinds of birds imitated by these five, numbering respectively thirty, twenty-two, fifteen, sixteen, and eleven. He also records the imitation of the barking of a dog by a starling, and even the bleating of a sheep by a skylark!
The whole question of imitation, or mimicry, is, however, debatable. Certain notes and combinations of notes may be common to many species; certain ones are without doubt common to several, and many apparent imitations may in reality be natural notes; and of many it may be difficult to say which bird is the imitator, which the imitated.
No doubt imitation plays an important part in the education of the young bird, though it has not been shown why a young bird will imitate the song of its own species rather than that of another. Written evidence is again wildly confused. Romanes (RM, pp. 222–23) quotes Couch to show that “singing is certainly instinctive.” Hudson (HN, pp. 89 et seq.) shows that at least the understanding of the significance of certain cries is instinctive. The Rev. W. Herbert, on the other hand (WS, note on pp. 131–32), makes very full observations on the learning of song by young birds, the gist of the observations being against the song being instinctive.
It may be that the knowledge of the song does lie deep within—unexpanded—in a bud, as it were, which opens in response to the throbbing of the song of the species; so that the free young bird adopts the song that finds the readiest echo in its own breast. Young birds vary in the docility shown in learning the song of other birds—see Witchell (WE, pp. 175–76), Wood (WN, p. 59), Bolton (BH, vol. 1, pp. 11, 30, 56)—the acquired song smothering, or partially smothering, the natural song. The young cuckoo shows no docility, but on leaving the nest responds to the natural song of its kind.
Human song gives wide expression to the emotions of love, of praise, of joy, of good-fellowship. It surely would be too much to say that the source of the whole is in the sexual emotion, the songs of worship and good-fellowship being merely secondary blossomings of the primary emotion; rather it would be nearer the truth to say that song is a natural expression of emotion, the expression being most developed, most exuberant, when the spring-tide of the blood is flowing; and that in song the sexual emotion finds a powerful ally, seizing upon it, but not creating it, for the furthering of its own especial and occasional end. That which is true of human song is true, in a large degree, of bird-song; nor does this ascribe to birds a greater aesthetic sense than has already been ascribed to them by those who maintain their song is purely sexual.
List of Literature Cited.
BC. Bechstein, J. M., Cage and Chamber Birds, their Natural History. Translated from the German of J. M. Beckstein, M.D., with considerable additions… compiled from various sources by H. G. Adams. Incorporating the whole of Sweet's British Warblers, 1877. (Bohn's Library.)
BH. Bolton, James, Harmonia Ruralis… British Song Birds. 2 v. 1845.
CW. Cornish, C. J., Wild England of To-day. 1900.
DD. Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man. (Murray.) 1894.
HN. Hudson, W. H., The Naturalist in La Plata. 1892.
MF. Mudie, Robert, The Feathered Tribes of the British Islands. 2 v. 1861.
RM. Romanes, George John, Mental Evolution in Animals. 1883.
TB. Thomson, J. Arthur, The Biology of the Seasons. 1911.
WE. Witchell, Charles A., The Evolution of Bird-song. 1896.
WN. Wood, Rev. J. G., Natural-history Rambles. 1879.
WS. White, Gilbert, The Natural History of Selborne. 1861.
WW. Watson, John, and Blanche Winder, Woodlanders and Field Folk. 1907.
YH. Yarrell, William, A History of British Birds. Ed. 3, 3 v., 1856; ed. 4, 4 v., 1871–74.