Bird song; copycats (part two)

Whilst some birds have a beautiful repertoire of songs, others go one step further and steal, or mimic, tunes.  The lyrebird is an interesting example of such a bird:

David Attenborough describes it’s song as elaborate and complex and it most certainly is.  As well as borrowing melodies from other birds, it incorporates other sounds of the landscape into it’s tune, including manmade sounds such as camera shutters.

How birds learn to sing is covered in numerous scientific papers and textbooks but from what I’ve gleamed, most birds combine nature and nuture.  That is, they have an innate song within them but they enhance this throughout their lives starting with the songs they hear from their parents and adding to this as they get older and have more life experience.

Take for example the lyrebird.  If they lyrebird from the video clip had babies then they would hear the collection of sounds and would learn to sing them.  As the lyrebird chicks get older, they will hear different sounds, perhaps a mobile ringing, a car speeding past or a differernt species of bird.  They will then incorporate these sounds into their own song.  This means that each lyrebird potentially has a slightly different collection of noises at their disposal, a map of their life as it were. And the transmition from parent to child means that the song of the lyrebird could be considered a cultural history of the lineage of that particular bird.  I love that idea.  Of course, some of this is just my own speculation but it is this concept which is behind the phrase genetic memory on the oracle card.

Other birds which imitate calls include mockingbirds, starlings and marsh warblers.

But why do they mimic?  Well, hypotheses have been made that it makes the bird more attractive to other birds as it increases their range of songs.  It could also be to protect against predators – if you can made a noise that the predator would fear then you’re going to be a lot safer.  It might be related to territory, if you pretend to be a more dangerous species you might face less competition (assuming of course they can’t see you).  In the case of birds, like cuckoos, who lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, mimicry would mean that the babies would be less likely to be evicted.

Talking birds

Pet songbirds and parrots have been shown to mimic human speech but it’s not confined to captive birds.  On occasion when these birds have entered the wild, other birds have picked up words and phrases from them.  There are also cases where wild parrots in Australia have mimicked human speech picked up from the park where they reside, resulting in the odd “Hello darling” and “What’s happening?”.

Some birds have been forced to perform their talent repeatedly and have been promoted as talking but whether they understand what they are saying is another issue all together.

Human copycats

Humans have long been fascinated by birds and their songs and human imitation of birdsong dates back millennia.  In the early 20th century, with the advent of recording equipment, records began to be released of both bird song and of human imitations.

Composers such as Beethoven have created pieces which intentionally imitate bird song, others have incorporated recordings of birds into their work and some musicians have even duetted with birds.

Next time I’ll be looking at how bird song has influenced human culture including our music and literature.

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