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Songs of Science 

If you don't know birds have accents, you haven't been attending your birdsong symposia

Wednesday, Nov 7 2001
Last year, while replacing my great grandmother's recently deceased budgie, I bought myself a modest little Bourke parakeet. Nothing fancy, just a little gray-brown bird with a pale blue underbelly to twitter and sing in the morning. I hadn't done my research. This bird is a clown, not an impresario. When she wants out of her cage, she runs back and forth, back and forth, bobbing her head and flapping her wings like an animated carnival game. Once out, she takes a few maladroit turns around the room, swoops through the kitchen and office, lands on the four highest points in the house, and strafes my cowering cats. She cleans my ears. She sits on my head and steals my morning bagel. She perches on my computer and eyes my progress with a concerned, fatalistic cock of her head. She dive-bombs my housemates and picks fights with any fingers not belonging to myself. Then, she settles down on a nearby door and watches the household goings-on with rapt attention, occasionally chirping comments to remind us of her presence or gurgling along to music she finds inspiring. She doesn't sing, but she's a very, very sweet bird.

My friend's lovebird is another story. He came to stay at my house for a couple weeks -- the bird, not the friend -- and I found out firsthand why he's called the "horrible rotten little monkey-bird." He can open just about anything. He learned to navigate a tricky bead curtain that hung between him and a fruit bowl in less than an hour, something my own bird and my housemates have never quite mastered. He watches, and he learns. Somewhere, from watching someone, he learned to get attention by hurling things off the mantel one by one until something breakable warrants a scolding. Like a child, he'd rather be scolded than ignored, which accounts for his hatred of computers. He will tear the keys off any unguarded keyboard; if you're determined to use the offending apparatus, he chases your words across the screen, snapping his beak like a prehistoric Pac Man. But he likes TV, and getting tickled. And he loves doing dishes. While at my house, the lovebird didn't sing either; he yelled and chortled.

Sometimes, when a wild bird perches outside my window, my little Bourke tries to mimic the sophisticated song, to join in the repeated chorus. She puffs up her feathers and points her tail in the air and lets her notes fly, but her attempts are artless and naïve. She doesn't have the vocabulary to communicate with well-educated, highly experienced, urbane birds. No one taught her.

In a lecture titled, "Singing in the Brain" -- one of eight addresses included in "Nature's Music: The Science of Bird Song," a symposium given at the California Academy of Sciences in honor of the late, great ornithologist Luis Felipe Baptista -- Dr. Erich Jarvis, whose lab studies the neurobiology of vocal communication at Duke University, explains the difference between auditory and vocal learning. A dog can learn to recognize new sounds such as "Sit!"; a parrot, on the other hand, can learn the sound and add it to his own repertoire. Among vocal learners in the mammal world are humans, cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and the 900-plus species of bat currently identified. In the bird world, the number of vocal learners is more expansive, including all oscines (more than 4,500 species of songbird, making up nearly half the world's bird population), parrots (several hundred species), and hummingbirds (more than 300 species, all of which reside only on the American continents). Like human babies, fledgling songbirds learn how to sing by imitating the adults around them. Professor Donald Kroodsma, who researches vocal communication in birds at Amherst, dramatically illustrates the fact in his lecture "Avian Song Virtuosity" by playing a recording of his infant daughter babbling previously heard sounds "bow wow wow wow wee wee dere's da ditty da da daddy" -- which is exactly the kind of early chortling a baby songbird will do while learning to put its first syllables together. For both humans and songbirds, there follows a "sensor-motor" phase of diligent practice, during which more complicated phrases and songs are set to memory. This is followed, finally, by the crystallized-song stage, when a bird reaches adulthood and, in many cases, develops its own style. For most vocal-learning birds, the style of vocalization depends on geographic location at birth.

Birds not only learn language from the older birds around them, in the manner of humans acquiring speech; they have accents. "A white-crowned sparrow born in Golden Gate Park," states Dr. Douglas Nelson of Ohio State in his lecture "Learning to Sing," "is going to sound different than a white-crowned sparrow born in the Presidio."

Before his sudden and heartbreaking death in June of last year, Luis Baptista had been known as the "Bird Man of Golden Gate Park" to many casual birdwatchers and laymen. Armed with a portable field amplifier, Baptista could wander into the park and proclaim, "that white-crown had a father from Oregon and a mother from Monterey." While some passersby might have called his proclamation scientific hyperbole, the many researchers who worked with Baptista during his 20-year tenure as Curator of Birds and Mammals at the California Academy of Sciences, and the countless ornithologists worldwide who are indebted to Baptista's 120-plus publications, including the comprehensive The Life of Birds, knew Baptista had an unusual gift.

Nelson points to a pivotal Baptista study from 1970, when he recorded six separate dialects of the white-crowned sparrow, from California to British Columbia. "He's probably the only man in history to spend his honeymoon recording white-crowned sparrows," chuckles Nelson under the dome of the planetarium, where nearly 300 people -- birdwatchers, students, scientists, and friends of Baptista -- gasp at the complex variation of syllables and trills shown on a spectrogram and heard over the sound system. While botanists, entomologists, and herpetologists alike were constantly startled by Baptista's knowledge in their fields, it was always birds that made his heart dance and his driving deficient. (During his memorial service in August, all four speakers mentioned poor driving in their eulogies.) "[H]e toured tirelessly up and down the West Coast in an old Mercedes..." writes Peter Marler, professor emeritus of biological sciences at Davis, in this quarter's California Wild, which is dedicated to Baptista, "infuriating other drivers by screeching to a halt at the slightest avian sound, blissfully unaware of the traffic jams he created."

Last year, during a car trip to a Bay Area bird expo shortly before Baptista's death, the enthusiasm and joy he felt for all birds infected me as it had so many others.

Wrapping his soft, mellifluous voice around one of the five languages he spoke fluently (not including the countless bird dialects he could imitate), Baptista told me about songbirds that were kept in handmade Ching dynasty cages in Macao, the former Portuguese colony near Hong Kong where he grew up. He told me about the canaries that told fortunes in China by drawing envelopes or numbered sticks out of a pile in exchange for grains of rice. He told me about cockfighting in Mexico and magpies at Coney Island that were trained to steal; about pigeons in Germany who were disqualified from competitions if they didn't offer a completely original, never-before-heard song. He told me about his conservation efforts, which helped bring the Socorro dove back from extinction on its native island off the coast of Mexico, and his work with the Timor zebra finch, which he was eager to get underway. With arms waving and whirling in the air and his body twisting with laughter, Baptista told me about bird song as it appeared in the music of Ralph Von Williams and Mozart and how to score rolling pigeons for synchronicity and discount certain songbirds for their trills. He told me how I could gain Buddhist brownie points by buying birds and releasing them, and how I could gain cash by training those birds to return to me so I might sell them again. He told me about the homing pigeons decorated by France during World War II, including one that delivered its message despite friendly fire, which cost it an eye, a wing, and a foot, and he told me about beautiful quails, bred for their voice in Japan and eaten to extinction when the shogun began starving during that same war.

"Isn't it sad," said Baptista, pausing to recover from the gravity of the last thought, before launching into riotous tales of falconry and pursing his lips in the perfect imitation of lark.

A short time later, while tending a wild barn owl that had moved onto his property in Sebastopol, Baptista collapsed and died.

"Luis and I were both interested in birds' exceptional learning," says Dr. Irene M. Pepperberg, a visiting professor at MIT, "in allowing an animal to learn." In her lecture about her work with great parrots, Pepperberg hammers home the notion that birds communicate. Her gray parrot, Alex, has been taught using a model/rival technique in which a human model is asked to identify a "cork" which a trainer hands over with great praise; meanwhile, the parrot-in-training falls over himself trying to get a little attention. Soon, the bird is saying "cork" -- and the names of 50 other items. We watch spellbound as Alex identifies items, distinguishing shape, size, color, and quantity. According to Pepperberg, her parrots ask questions now, exploring their world as any child might. They ask if her sweater is wool; they ask to be tickled.

The ability to speak was regarded by Descartes as the single most important distinction between humans and other animals. Even most modern linguists agree that language is a uniquely human characteristic.

"If you treat them as though they are sentient beings," says Pepperberg, "they learn."

To make donations to the Baptista Memorial Fund call (415) 750-7145 or write the California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, SF, CA 94118.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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