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The language of birds: 6.2 Do birds have a musical sense?

Do birds, besides singing for the survival reasons earlier outlined, also sing to satisfy their own aesthetic sense? As long ago as 1958 when most ethologists - scientists studying animal behaviour - were pretty stuffy in their attitude to animals having emotions, William H. Thorpe wrote "The idea that bird song is often an expression of irrepressible joy can be supported with some plausible arguments, and is certainly not without some scientific justification. In so far as this may be true, the songs of birds can be regarded as a first step towards true artistic creation and expression". There is a simple choice: either aesthetics is confined to one species, Homo sapiens, or it isn't. Since evolution is a gradual process, and since the animals have anticipated so much that is human, it is certainly a valid issue to raise. However, it is also true that much is uniquely human.

But why shouldn't bird song give "personal satisfaction" to the singer? Could not the poets and the scientists both be right? Nowadays there are comparatively few scientists who will not agree that birds may have a sense of musical beauty, that they may sing not only because it is beautiful but because they find it individually rewarding. A number of reasons support this idea. In their songs many, many birds use distinctly complex musical phrases, whereas to be utilitarian - merely functional - it seems fair to suppose that ordinary noises in quite short repeated bursts would do the job.

Secondly, birds employ musical devices just as human composers do: accelerando and ritardando, crescendo and diminuendo. Some researchers hold that this indicates the satisfaction of a musical sense. Most convincing of all perhaps is the observable fact that long after certain birds like blackbirds and willow warblers have secured a mate and firmly established a territory, the males continue to develop their songs musically. To say the least, it is no easier to find a function for them doing this than to suppose that the song is developed for its own sake.

I will end this section with a truly striking example of avian musical composition. In Bavaria, a crested lark Galerida cristata imitated the four whistled commands a shepherd used to work his dog. The sounds were picked up and used by the bird, not by weaving them among his own notes but by using them together. The bird - and I quote directly from Professor Erwin Tretzel's paper - "employed fairly accurately the intervals of the scale of C Major" and "presented its shepherd imitations mostly in a pleasing arrangement with definite metrical construction that revealed an astonishing sense of feel of the singer for musical form and proportion".

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