Why Birds Sing

2005 September 14
by David J. Ringer

SPRINGFIELD, MO. — Why do birds sing? We are more comfortable if we content ourselves with simple answers: to attract mates, to defend territory, to express emotion. Because sexual selection produced their songs over millions of years. Because God gave them their songs.

Birders can be even worse, reducing bird song to a mere means of identification. Northern Cardinal. American Goldfinch. Hooded — no, Chestnut-sided Warbler. And then the ears shut off until a new challenge presents itself. Carolina Chickadee.

But rote answers and hasty check marks barely even begin to unravel the ancient mystery: Why do birds sing?

David Rothenberg — musician, academic, searcher — is uniquely gifted to pursue the question. “Why Birds Sing” chronicles his personal journey, “a journey into the mystery of bird song.” From Middle Eastern legends to computer-processed data, Rothenberg wanders through time and across disciplines in search of an answer. Along the way, he introduces us to world-renowned poets, to a naturalist with pitch perfect enough to identify the frequency of beating insects’ wings, and to a few eccentric geniuses, some avian and some human, who incorporate each others’ melodies into their own.

The selfish projections of Romantic poets do not satisfy Rothenberg, nor does current evolutionary theory. Birds are not like us; to hear in their voices only our own is a mistake. Selective pressures, as scientists understand them today, cannot explain the extravagance, complexity, and beauty of bird song.

A clarinetist himself, Rothenberg calls bird song “alien music.” Though perhaps eerie at first, the term proves quite appropriate. We can never understand what it is like to be a bird. Their experience — and their music — intersects our own, but it is a mistake to think of them as more similar than they are. Some of the writers Rothenberg examines grew frustrated because their birds did not make human music. And just why should we expect them to? Rothenberg wonders.

We have come to understand some of the functions of bird song. But are birds unfeeling, mechanical songsters, driven to sing but never understanding what it is they do? Rothenberg doesn’t think so. They are alien musicians; they sing, he says, because they can.

But in the end, Rothenberg seems unwilling to go where his ideas, and the beauty produced by his alien musicians, lead him. Birds sing because they can, because they must, because they will to live. Science cannot explain where they got their songs or why. “Science needs morality if it is going to save the world,” he writes. And later, “No explanation will ever erase the eternal need for song.” Morality? An eternal need for song? Rothenberg seems to have glimpsed something beyond the world, but he wants to stay behind.

With his information, his passion, and his quest to know, Rothenberg chipped away at the calluses over my own heart and ears. He left me longing to listen to a starling’s song — really listen to it — for the first time. Even Brown-headed Cowbirds possess an ability unique in the known world of bird song, and when I hear them again this spring, it will be with less disgust and more awe.

In a good mystery, each new revelation leaves us hungry for more. We are captivated, yearning, even as the final solution seems to slip further and further into obscurity. “Why Birds Sing” leads us deeper into a beautiful labyrinth in which we could well lose ourselves forever. Perhaps we surrender to the questions and to shudders of delight, beginning to believe that the answer (if it exists at all) is not so important in the end.

But what if it is?

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