Songs of Science

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

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 Sciencesin 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 Nelsonof 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.

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