The birds who know how to improvise

Like a human infant, a young bird begins with an inherited, hard-wired gift for the song language of its species and, like human beings, each has a sensitive period when it learns how to sing from a parent or (in laboratory studies) a “tutor”.

New Statesman
Poetry in aerial motion: our feathered friends dazzle with variations on a theme in the same way we do. Image: Joel Micah Miller/ Gallery Stock

According to the American writer Andrew Hudgins, there are some things that are “basically poetic about birds”. They are pretty, they sing and they can fly, he writes. “And if their ability to sing makes them easily emblematic of the poet, their ability to fly makes them immediate and compact symbols of the ancient, human desire to transcend our earthbound nature.”

All this is true but there is another aspect of bird behaviour that may be even more poetic and that is the ability, of some species at least, to improvise – because improvisation, a form of play and at the same time a variety of practical magic, is the basis of all our poetries.

Like a human infant, a young bird begins with an inherited, hard-wired gift for the song language of its species and, like human beings, each has a sensitive period when it learns how to sing from a parent or (in laboratory studies) a “tutor”.

The similarity does not end there, however. As in those human instances in which young children are deprived of language (the best known case being that of Genie, a brutally abused American girl who, over a period of 11 years in captivity, rarely heard normal human speech), what develops when no parent or tutor can be found is an abnormal, sometimes unrecognisable facsimile of true song.

It is painful to imagine this condition. For a bird, especially for the more musically inventive, song is the defining characteristic, the primary way by which it knows itself and is known by others. To lose its species song is to lose not just its identity but some part of its presence in the world.

Like Genie, who lived in a detached, almost ghostly silence even after she was rescued, a songless bird is a sort of local vacuum, a dropped stitch in the fabric of universal consciousness that seems, to those of us who can express ourselves, both eerie and tragic.

Having learned the basics of its species song from a tutor, each bird goes on, through practice and close listening, to perfect a version of that song. Once this has been achieved, some birds develop no further; others, however, build vast and highly inventive repertoires, incorporating musical inventions from their own and other bird species and even mimicking humanmade sounds.

Everyone is aware of the virtuosity of mockingbirds and starlings in this regard, but their repertoires of 200 or so “tunes” at most seem rather limited compared to the brown thrasher’s 2,000.

Yet repertoire is not the whole story. Indeed, as with human improvisation, real mastery comes in combining a limited range of notes in complex performances – and surely this is where the most musical songbirds prove most “poetic”.

With human beings it could be argued that all music-making is, in essence, grounded in improvisation. Whether it is Bach constructing the astonishingly lyrical and inventive Goldberg Variations from a simple original theme or John Coltrane transforming a standard such as “Bye, Bye Blackbird” into a jazz classic, we begin with a given datum or experience, draw upon a vast inner encyclopaedia of other experiences (only some of which are sounds) and arrive at something unexpected. And this applies not only to music; it is just as true for poetry, architecture or dance at their best.

This gift for improvisation, that serious discipline in which the safe ground is abandoned for the possibility of marvellous play, is arguably the one gift we share with the birds and it is only here that we can aspire to be their equals. We cannot fly and few of us are pretty enough to bear comparison with the vireos or orioles but occasionally our ability to improvise (or to recognise great improvisation when we encounter it) allows us to transcend our earthbound nature, for a while, at least.

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