Songs of Science

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

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 Williamsand 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.

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