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The language of birds: Introduction

The language of birds is the use by them of sound for communication. Human "language" is the symbolic use of sounds to which meanings have been assigned by cultural convention. With such language we are able to describe abstract ideas and to convey meanings about the past and the future. Few if any animals - certainly no wild birds - could approach this. Their songs and cries for the purpose of communication are more directly akin to our non-verbal communication - sobs, screams, grunts, sighs and our tones of voice. Birds' songs and calls express how the bird "feels" at the time; they reflect the mood of the moment. This is not to say that they cannot convey a precise meaning. Some bird calls are like human words in that they refer to very specific happenings - like the different warning cries for "airborne enemy approaching" and "ground enemy approaching".

The best known avian utterance is bird song, to Man the most musical of all nature's sounds. Percy Scholes, the compiler of the Oxford Companion to Music, put it even more strongly: "But for the humans" he wrote, "birds are perhaps Nature's only musicians". This was said in 1938, before the tape recorder had had the chance to bring the voices of insects, frogs and mammals into peoples' homes via radio, gramophone record or sound cassette; it was also before the voices of these creatures had been studied in as much detail as they have been in the ensuing half-century.

Some insects create very pleasing sounds, notably the mole-crickets (Gryllotalpidae) and the tunefulness of certain of the night-time frog and toad singers easily outmatches certain songbirds - there is even a frog whose official English name is the bird-voiced frog Hyla avivoca! Then there are the gibbons (Hylobatidae), those arboreal apes of south-east Asia, who have been elected "honorary birds" because of the stirring beauty of their wild wailings, and mention must be made of the much-publicised musicality of certain whales, notably the humpback Megaptera novaeangliae and the southern right whales Eubalaena australis. In the face of such competition, birds may no longer be considered as "Nature's only musicians" but their songs still represent to man the pinnacle of natural musicianship. To the birds, song - along with the other sounds, their calls, represents a communication system. "Song" is in one category and "calls" are in another. Song is normally sung only in the breeding season and only by males, further, it is typically loud, regularly repeated, persistent and often complex. Calls on the other hand are usually uttered by both sexes, are brief and stereotyped and thus very much to the point, and make their meaning instantly clear.

Great Tit (Parus major) (28K)

Great Tit Parus major. Great Tits sing mainly to defend territories.

Great Tit Parus major
song, recorded by William Pedley, 17 May 1986, Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, England.

The vocal repertoires of a few bird species have been studied sufficiently well for us to know their full extent. The adult chaffinch's Fringilla coelebs vocabulary, besides its song and sub-song, has nine different calls, the male great tit Parus major, besides singing his "teecher teecher" song (and variants), will use some 26 different sound signals (a few more than the female), and the herring gull Larus argentatus uses cries with seven different meanings.

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