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The language of birds: 5.3 "Singing" birds and birds taught human tunes

Deprived of the opportunity to copy their natural vocabulary, captive birds of certain species will copy not only human speech, but almost any other sounds such as the dripping of a tap or the clink of milk bottles - even human singing.

A remarkable act is put on at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in California by Ray Berwick who has his parrots so well trained that they speak and sing on cue. Pancho, his Mexican double yellow-headed parrot Amazona sp., is he claims the "premier soprano of the bird world". Her repertoire includes "I Left my Heart in San Francisco", " When it's Springtime in the Rockies" and "Bali Hai". These three songs, with appropriate instrumental and vocal backing, appeared on a stereo "single" in 1981; and on the flip side Bobby the African grey, and Lolita the yellow-naped Amazon Amazona ochrocephala, whistle and speak.

Having demonstrated to man their ability to pick up music, birds were then deliberately trained to sing, and sold on the strength of their musical ability. Mozart bought a starling that had been taught to sing. Contrary to popular supposition, this bird did not inspire the first notes of the last movement in Mozart's G major piano concerto, K453. My friend, Mrs. Joan Hall-Craggs, (a Mozart student), tells me that he bought the bird six weeks after the first performance of the work. So either the bird had been specially taught the tune, or

Bullfinch (Pyrrhyla pyrrhula) (18K)
Bullfinch Pyrrhyla pyrrhula
perhaps it was a common melody of the day. Beethoven and Haydn both trained parrots to sing. It was the next step to "improving" the natural songs of birds, for us to try to teach them either our own existing melodies, or tunes specially "written within the compass and faculty of each bird", to quote from the introduction to The Bird Fancyer's Delight written in 1717. A special instrument was invented, the "bird flageolet", which played a tone above the otherwise highest-pitched recorder, the "sopranino" recorder. Small boys in Germany used it to tutor young bullfinches Pyrrhula pyrrhula, woodlarks Lullula arborea, Indian shamas Copsychus malabaricus and others. Soon human teachers were replaced by mechanical ones. The French brought out the "Serinette" (serin is French for canary) and the "Merline" (merle is French for blackbird), both being hand-turned organs invented for the purpose of teaching birds.

Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula
cagebirds singing German folk tunes, recorded by Jurgen Nicolai, Hessen, Germany.

In Hesse in Germany, at least until the middle of the nineteenth century, bullfinches in particular were tutored by means of the bird flageolet to whistle such tunes as "God Save the Queen", "Bluebells of Scotland", and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" depending upon the country of export. As recently as the 1950s a man in Staffordshire was tutoring his roller canaries with an electric organ. Imported from Germany, it switched itself on (and off) six times an hour. Other trainers still use the older method of a "schoolmaster" cock bird around whom 20 or more pupils are arranged in serried ranks.

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