Song of Songs

If you’ve got it, flaunt it. The bowerbird shows off what riches live in his environment by artfully arranging flowers, beetle shells, and berries in his homemade museum. Magpies weave shiny objects into their nests to make them — and by proxy, themselves — more attractive. The artists of the bird world love to sample from their environment, creating mosaics and collages from the material available to them, appreciating the aesthetic value of a twig or a cat-tail. And where ever you find artists, you find plagiarists. Or, as they’re known today, deejays.

This clip from the BBC’s Life of Birds series went viral some years ago, but even if you haven’t seen it in a while, you should watch it again. The Superb Lyrebird, a pheasant-sized songbird from the forests of Southern Australia, is one of the greatest vocal mimics in the world. In the clip, you hear it mimic not only the other birds in its territory, but a car alarm from the parking lot encroaching its territory, the whine of a chainsaw destroying its forest, and the shutter of the camera from a photographer who’s come to film it before it has disappeared. Like a gangster’s parrot, you can tell a whole, poignant story just from the sounds the bird repeats.

Have you ever wondered why vocal mimics such as mynahs, parrots, and corvids learn to echo their surroundings? In the case of parrots, their ability to mimic the words of others is part of learning their language, the same as with humans. With mynahs and lyrebirds, the mimicry takes on an artistic touch. To further explore the phenomenon of audial mimicry, let’s turn to a humble species far more familiar to most of us than the lyrebird: the Northern Mockingbird.

Mimus polyglottus, the mimic of many tongues, is a common visitor to the gardens and fields of North America. While their imitations are not as spot-on as the lyrebird’s, they can carry up to 200 distinct songs in their repertoire. The first bird a young mockingbird learns to copy is another mockingbird… most of the bird’s songs are unique to its own kind. Mockingbirds have a sort of culture of sampling and passing songs down to each other, from father to son and neighbor to neighbor, tunes that have been copied and distorted for thousands of years. I’ve heard ornithologists tell of mockingbirds in Mexico singing bastardized, slightly-off versions of cardinal songs… in places a thousand miles from the nearest cardinal. They learned the songs from down a chain of mockingbirds stretching up to the central United States, where cardinals sing on the winter fences of Iowa, and like a phrase in a game of telephone, the song has been changed, misheard, and misspoken as it has traveled. The Mexican mockingbirds are mimicking an animal they’ve never seen, never met, never even imagined. The song lives without the bird.

So why does the mockingbird mock? It’s certainly not to fool the birds it’s imitating. (In fact, studies have shown that the original birds are rarely deceived.) The answer is that, in having the largest repertoire, the male mockingbird shows to females that it has the best or largest territory. A mockingbird who makes his territory in a parking lot will not have many birds in his little kingdom — the most songs he’ll ever learn will be those of seagulls, pigeons, and fussy cars. But a mockingbird whose home features lake-front property, mixed brush, and forest will have a huge diversity of birds pass through his lands — warblers, sparrows, finches, wrens, etc. — whose songs he can collect. His lush territory attracts many other species, and he can prove its lushness by vocally advertising which birds have sojourned there. They are deejays, sampling from the work around them and creating a soundscape, a musical collage which depicts what their world looks like. In fact, some birds are tied so closely to a certain habitat that their songs become metaphoric indicators of a particular type of environment. To a female mockingbird listening to a male’s song in a distant tree, his song sequence of:

mockingbird * catbird * mockingbird * louisiana waterthrush * spring peeper frog * mockingbird * red-eyed vireo

might sound something like this: “Come live here, in the thick bushes. Come live with me, for I have a mountain spring and a cold stream, a deep stream that overflows in the spring, from which I drink under the tall trees.

A mockingbird that can win and keep such a territory must be a strong and vigilant one, and therefore a good father to any female’s chicks. So the mockingbird advertises the fitness of his genes by advertising his territory, by advertising the number of other animals that use and desire his territory, by learning their languages. Suddenly the cardinal’s mating song also serves to win the sexual desires of the female mockingbird.

While hip-hop sampling might be one metaphor for such an art, and collage another, magnetic poetry kits may be the best fit. The more words you have on your refrigerator, the longer and more complex your poetry can become, and the more you are able to say. Surely the mockingbird’s song is more than a list, the way the bowerbird’s artwork is more than just a collection; there is poetry at work here. So the mockingbird wins the affections of his mate or mates by gaining the largest lexicon and creating the most complete audiomosaic he can, mimicking policeman’s whistles, fire trucks, crickets, telephones… anything that makes a repetitive sound. Jazz musicians will sometimes “quote” other songs during their solos — I remember hearing Charlie Parker break into a humorous little version of “Pop Goes The Weasel” during a virtuoso sax bop — for the purpose of showing off, and mockingbirds are also unafraid of quoting men and machines to sound clever. His song is like a pantoum, that repetitive and rolling lyrical poem that recycles its key words but mixes them in new orders each time. So to listen to a mockingbird some summer evening is to hear a poem about his world, and a retelling of the stories he’s heard from mockingbird’s he’s met, bard to bard. He echoes its world, but is no stenographer; he listens, rephrases, and interprets the songs of his world into a Song of Songs. Like all the threads of a great tapestry passing through the eye of a single needle, all sounds in one territory are pulled through the mockingbird and are rendered, remixed, rewoven. Through the mockingbird, all the music of the world is transformed.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

One response to “Song of Songs

  • Rebecca

    I was fortunate enough to see a couple lyrebirds in the Blue Mountains east of Sydney on a trip to Australia last year – the one’s I saw weren’t making chainsaw or camera noises, of course, but I remembered that clip and was pretty amazed just to get to add them to my life list. They’re featured on an Australian coin, as well.

    I didn’t know that about mockingbirds mimicking the songs of birds they could never actually encounter. That’s amazing.

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