The Lyrebird, the Duck, and the Parrots
By JONATHAN HARRIS
Bird songs likely have inspired human music for more than two thousand generations, at least since the Upper Paleolithic bird bone flutes that are our first tangible evidence of human musical culture. Whether birds are themselves musicians, intentionally creating the music we hear in their songs, there is little doubt birds perceive and take interest in human music, a fact noted by professional musicians, saints, and perspicacious bird keepers throughout history. That fact alone suggests they share with us a capacity for music.
That was the gist of last week’s essay. I want to explore a bit further now what I am calling this “capacity” for music, in light of recent scientific research and the personal experience of a couple SFEMS members.
A generation ago the idea that birds had significant self-awareness or interior life was beyond heretical; to suggest they had the intentionality to create or even appreciate music was ridiculous. Ornithologists interpreted birds as super-efficient biological machines, their systems optimized and miniaturized for flight, their brains pre-wired with tightly scripted behaviors adapted to a particular way of life. The small absolute size of a bird’s brain (a walnut for larger birds, a pea for smaller ones) was assumed to preclude intelligence. So did its neuroanatomy, lacking the developed cortex where higher cognitive functions take place in mammals. Birds’ vocalizations were explained as a set hard-wired calls and learned but mindless mimicry used to attract mates or defend territory. “Parroting,” needless to say, is a popular synonym for uncomprehending repetition.
Mainstream science in the 1970s was so dismissive of anthropomorphism and the idea of animal minds that Irene Pepperberg’s first grant application to study cognitive abilities of African Grey parrots was summarily rejected. When she proposed teaching her parrot to talk (at which they are adept) so it could answer questions directly, verbally (rather than using cumbersome, interactive computer screens), one reviewer wrote, “What has this woman been smoking?” Thirty-five years later, Pepperberg’s research with her parrot Alex had fundamentally transformed our notion of the “bird brain.” Alex proved to be a remarkably smart and chatty fellow. His cognitive abilities tested at the level of a 5–7 year-old human child; and he was able to communicate not just clearly and deliberately with human words, but use creativity and resourcefulness, sometimes even a little poetic imagination or irony, inventing new words and phrases to express novel concepts.
In the past decade, scientists also have fundamentally revised their understanding of avian neuroanatomy. The mammal brain, with its capacity for higher cognitive functions located in the cortex, turns out to be not the pinnacle of evolution, the final, most advanced brain structure resulting from development along a linear path. As in other areas of biological evolution, it represents just one way those functions can be wired. The ancestors of birds and mammals diverged almost 300 million years ago, and as with the two groups’ respiration, digestion, reproductive systems, and vocalization anatomy, and many other things, their capacities for higher cognitive functions evolved independently to solve similar problems. In the case of birds, the neuroanatomical structures underlying higher cognitive functions got wired into different brain structures. As for size, it turns out that absolute brain size is not as good a predictor of intelligence as the size (mass) of the organ relative to total body size. And by that measure, birds are rather “large-brained” creatures. The ratio of a parrot’s brain to body weight, for instance, is comparable to that of some cetaceans and the larger apes; that of crows and ravens is in the same range as humans. New Caledonian crows, it should be noted, have shown great prowess in solving complex problems. In their natural habitat, they not only make tools for specific purposes; they have distinct, regional, “cultural” traditions of tool making in different parts of the island.
The idea that birds simply mimic sounds and throw them back without understanding does not withstand much scrutiny either. It is belied not only by the countless parrots who use words appropriately every day to express themselves; it also can be seen in the mimicry of songbirds. Philosopher David Rothenberg (Why Birds Sing) recounts the story of a naturalist trying to record an Albert’s Lyrebird in Australia. Lyrebirds are perhaps the best mimics in the world, assembling huge repertories of natural and human sounds, which they rattle off like perfect recordings of their original sources. They also are notoriously shy, and when this bird detected its human intruder, he threw out a litany of alarm calls from every species in his library. Note that he did not use his entire sound repertory, but intentionally chose that subset which would be most likely to be understood by his interloper. For examples of a Superb Lyrebird’s mimetic abilities, see this short sampler:
The meaning of bird songs often is reduced to their most familiar biological functions—defending territory or attracting a mate. Rothenberg’s story shows the limitation of reducing the meaning of any music—even a bird’s—to the automatic execution of a function, in this case defense of the bird’s territory. It tells us nothing about the lyrebird’s strategy, his “rhetoric,” if you will; nor the deftness, effectiveness, eloquence or beauty of his declamation, all of which of course would open the question of intention and control on the part of the bird-as-musician.
Imagine explaining human music this way. The function of most rock songs, e.g., is to express the desire to procreate. An enterprising scholar, using the model of birdsong, might hypothesize that guitar solos played at relatively higher pitch, higher volume, and with a higher number of notes per minute would indicate superior genes in the guitarist and be most likely to attract a mate. Indeed, this hypothesis might be tested in the field by searching out and counting the offspring of aging guitarists scattered in various cities around the US. However, such analyses would tell us nothing about what their music meant. That a song fills a particular function says remarkably little about its content, rhetoric, or quality; it does not distinguish the guitar solos of a Jimi Hendrix from a Nigel Tufnel.
My own experience living with birds (canaries, cockatiels and blue-crowned conures) for the past several years suggests that all of them vocalize for many reasons, not only for courtship or territorial self proclamation, but sometimes for camaraderie or comfort, and sometimes simply to enjoy the play of sound. They all make a wide variety of sounds, respond to and imitate each other and us humans. All 4 of our parrots themselves initiate or eagerly join sound imitation games, the conures playing with words or noises, the cockatiels with whistling.
The cockatiels and canary also respond to environmental background sounds with whistling. The gurgling of tap water, the whine of a heater or appliance, or the hum a passing street sweeper, can become for them drones over which to improvise. The birds also respond to one another, both imitating each other’s sounds and sometimes playing off them to form more elaborate musical dialogues. Here are a couple short videos illustrating such dialogues. One is a simple exchange between a cockatiel and canary, prompted at first by the hum of a passing street sweeper, which leads to a more heated peak with each also responding to the other before they both relax.
The second is a more elaborate trading of riffs back and forth between the canary (on screen) and one of the conures (off screen). The thematic material is more complex, but it is possible to hear the conscious exchange of chatter between birds and the imitation of motives
The conures, curiously, respond less to ambient sounds than to music itself. Sometimes music prompts their excited screams or squawks; often they dance. Many parrot species, it turns out, move to music (the documentary Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill has a short clip of the cherryhead conure Mingus dancing:
The kind of music is surprisingly varied. While they enjoy lively, highly rhythmic songs, they will respond to almost any music if they are in the mood. I have seen one of the birds, Paco, dance to vocal warm-ups, bobbing his head with each change of pitch. That shows an ability to hear melodic rhythm, to hear the rhythm implicit in the change of pitch, not just to feel a beat. I have seen the other conure, Joey, dance to Ligeti’s cloud music. That suggests just as strongly that—even without rhythm or even clear notes or pitches—he has an intuition of Ligeti as music, which in turn means that music is for him a category, an acoustical object, a distinct “kind” of sound; moreover, his intuition of what fits in the category of music is similar to ours.
A clear line scientists drew for many years to distinguish the musical capabilities of humans from those of animals was “entrainment,” the ability to synchronize body movement with a beat. As recently as 5 or 6 years ago, luminaries at the level of Oliver Sachs (Musicophilia) and Daniel Levitin (This is Your Brain on Music) publicly declared no animal could do what a 3-year-old human child could do. That proclamation too is proving incorrect. In 2007, neuropsychologist Aniruddh Patel (Music, Language, and the Brain) became aware of a YouTube video showing a Medium Sulphur Crested Eleanora Cockatoo named Snowball dancing to the Back Street Boys
His taste was deplorable, but of course he was a parrot. Nevertheless, Patel was impressed by how well he followed the beat and arranged to test the bird’s ability. It turned out Snowball was quite deliberately synchronizing his dance moves to the beat; he could and would vary his pulse to follow changes in the music’s tempo. Patel and colleagues searched YouTube and the Web for other examples of entrainment and found a dozen other animals, mostly parrots but some mammals, including an elephant, that shared this capability.
Longtime SFEMS members, especially those who attended the first, more rustic and rural summer workshops may remember Angene Feves’ duck, Laura Soave. Angene, an internationally renowned historical dance expert, taught baroque and Renaissance dance at our summer workshops during their first decade; she had several ducks, one of whom she considered special and smuggled into the workshops for a few years. Angene considered Laura to be not only quite smart and empathic; she also claimed she had musical abilities. She once joked the duck could realize figured bass. By which she meant she would both dance and quack along, following the music. What makes this story interesting is that it is not about a songbird or a parrot but a duck, a bird with very primitive vocal apparatus capable of making only limited sounds. What it suggests is that the ability to recognize and appreciate music is independent of the ability to produce it. It also suggests it is widespread in birds. The ancestors of ducks, chickens, and their relatives diverged from the other birds over 110 million years ago.
Why do birds have this great enthusiasm for music? One possible answer is that music is something tangible and perceptible in the world as much as it is created or invented. Our brains are somehow wired to grasp a certain kind of order in sound (Patel now claims that with respect to their abilities to process and interpret sound, human minds are more similar to those of birds than to our closest primate relatives).
Luther’s statement about music being a largesse of God thus may have been close to the truth than we have been prepared to grant. Luther’s greatest musical follower, J.S. Bach, considered music a science. Indeed, his music often feels like the solution to mathematical or logical puzzles, with Bach searching for relationships that existed outside himself. In some sense all composers must do this, though their probings may be less profound or sophisticated than Bach’s. And I suspect birds likewise are wired to recognize something that is out there in the universe, a harmony of the spheres, if you will. Consider how a child who never has been allowed to have sugar reacts to its first piece of birthday cake. Hard-wired bliss—a gastrodelic experience. It is a real sensation and a perception, grounded in the external world as much as in our own minds. That is why Native Americans reacted so strongly to western polyphony when they first heard it in the 16th century, because it was a sugar rush to their minds and bodies in ways (harmony and counterpoint) they were wired to grasp but had not themselves (fully) conceived. Western listeners have had similar reactions to African polyrhythms on first hearing. Almost everyone has had the thrill of neophilia at some point on hearing a new musical genre or even a new piece of music that moves us powerfully in ways we had never imagined. It is that same quality I believe excites birds and makes them interested in our music. It is what Joey and Snowball perceive, and what Angene Feves saw in her duck and Mozart in his starling, and what caused such delight in the birds who gathered around Landini’s head to hear him extemporize on a hot summer’s day 600 years ago.
Frances Feldon and Galax Quartet in “Wingin’ It”
Sunday, November 17 at 4:30PM
2087 Addison St., Berkeley
Reservations recommended as space is limited.
For tickets: http://jazzschool.org/event/frances-feldon-galax-quartet/.