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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Motif of Bird-Song

By Maurice Thompson (1844–1901)

[Sylvan Secrets, in Bird-Songs and Books. 1887.]

ALL our birds use what we call their voices, just as we use ours, for the purposes of expression generally, and I am convinced that bird-song proper, though oftenest the expression of some phase of the tender passion, is not confined to such expression. In a limited way birds have their lyric and their dramatic moods, their serious and their comic songs, their recitative and their oratorical methods. They are conscious of any especial superiority of voice, just as they are keenly aware of any particular brilliancy of colors on their plumage. It may be noticed, in passing, that here again the birds and reptiles agree (many of the latter giving evidence of a taste for bright colors), while below man no other animals show much more than mere curiosity in this regard. A parrot having gay feathers in its wings and tail will display them to please your eye in return for the favor of a nut or a cracker, without ever having been taught to do it. It is conscious of the fact that brilliant colors are acceptable to the eye, and it instinctively seeks to thank you, so to say, by the delicate strut which uncovers all its hidden wealth of red, yellow, and blue. So the sweetest sounds at its command are instinctively flung out by the song-bird whenever it feels especially happy. The migratory song-birds, upon their spring arrival, are (no doubt) delighted at finding themselves once more in their breeding-haunts, and immediately they begin to give free vent to their feelings through their melodious throats. It would be interesting to know whether or not they do the same at the extreme southern end of their migration. I have noted that along the gulf-coast of Mississippi and Louisiana the non-resident mocking-birds, when they first come in from farther south, are noisily communicative of their ecstatic pleasure. For a few days they make the groves ring with their songs, then pass on farther north, many of them finally reaching Tennessee, some going over the mountains to Kentucky, and a few touching with a light spray of melody the southernmost knobs of Ohio and Indiana. I might easily mass a large sum of facts going to show that no one desire or instinctive emotion is the sole cause of bird-song. That the tender passion engenders lyrical fervor and makes a feathered troubadour of the gay sylvan lover there can be no doubt, but love is not always at the root of the lay. The song-bird is a gourmand of the most pronounced type, and we find him going into a rapture of sweet sounds over a feast of insects or fruit. He enjoys bright colors, too, so that he is always hilarious when he finds himself in the midst of green leaves and beautiful bloom-sprays. A haw-bush or wild apple-tree in full flower often is the inspiration of the brown thrush and the cat-bird. In a certain way, indeed, the birds are true poets, singing forth the influence of their environments—just as Burns sang his, just as Millet painted his. I do not mean to be fanciful in this regard. Call it instinct, as it is, and say that birds do not reason, which is true; but add, nevertheless, the indisputable fact that instinct is of kin to genius, in that it has its origin (as genius has its) in the simplest and purest elements of nature, and so you will get my meaning.

It is impossible to know, with any degree of certainty, how clear or how dim may be the bird’s conception of melody or of beauty; but we can know that its enjoyment of color and sweet sounds is most intense. The woodpecker, beating his unique call on a bit of hard, elastic wood, is making an effort, blind and crude enough, but still an effort, to express a musical mood vaguely floating in his nature. We may not laugh at him, so long as from the interior of Africa explorers bring forth the hideous caricatures of musical instruments that some tribes of our own genus delight themselves withal. Among the Southern negroes it was once common to see a dancer going through an intricate terpsichorean score to the music of a “pat,” which was a rhythmical hand-clapping performed by a companion. I mention this in connection with the suggestion that the chief difference between the highest order of bird-music and the lowest order of man-music is expressed by the word rhythm. There is no such an element as the rhythmic beat in any bird-song that I have heard. Modulation and fine shades of “color,” as the musical critic has it, together with melodious phrasing, take the place of rhythm. The meadow-lark, in its mellow fluting, comes very near to a measure of two rhythmic beats, and the mourning dove puts a throbbing cadence into its plaint; but the accent which the human ear demands is wholly wanting in each case. On the other hand, the mocking-bird, the cat-bird, and the brown thrush accentuate their songs, but not rhythmically; indeed, the cat-bird’s utterance is an impetuous stream of glittering accents, as it were—irregular, tricksy, flippant, and yet assymmetrical, in a certain sense, as the bird itself—and the mocking-bird’s song is like a flashing stream of water flowing over stones in the sunlight and flinging ariose bubbles and tinkling spray in every direction. I have watched birds at their singing under many and widely differing circumstances, and I am sure that they express joyous anticipation, present content, and pleasant recollection, each as the mood moves, and all with equal ease. It is not so plain, however, that the avian nature is fitted to formulate hate, or sorrow, or anger in song, for any unpleasant mood seems to take expression in cries altogether unmusical. I have never heard one sweet note by any angry or in any way unhappy bird. The avian life is beset with every danger except, probably, that of epidemic disease, and yet so flexible and elastic is it that the moment any terrible ordeal is past the bird is quite ready for a new and energetic effort in song-singing….

Among human beings a fine voice is the notable exception; among male mocking-birds in a wild state there is no exception—they all sing, and so nearly equally well that it requires close attention to discover any difference. So one wild bluebird’s piping is practically identical, in volume, compass, and timbre, with that of every other wild male bluebird in the world. From this and a hundred kindred facts, it is safe to say that generation and the constant transmission of organic power and equipoise are very nearly perfect with birds of the highest order. Indeed, in song, as in so many other ways, the bird shows the operation of a nearly unerring heredity, and I have been forced to conclude, from all that I have been able to note in the lives and habits of song-birds, that a good part of bird-song is the mechanical response to what may be called hereditary memory. The mocking-bird, reared in captivity, far from the haunts of its ancestors, will repeat the cries of birds it has never seen and whose voices it has never heard. I have heard it do this. Not only the power to mimic is hereditary, but there, lingering in the bird’s nature, is the memory, so to call it, of the voices it is born to mimic—the voices its ancestors mimicked ten thousand years ago.

It has been the fashion for men of science to make light of the common legend of the power of birds and other animals to foretell rain and other meteorological phenomena; but I long ago learned to credit it in a large degree. Birds are not always right in their predictions, because weather-threats are not always carried out. The yellow-billed cuckoo is more vociferous when the barometer indicates rain, but often the barometer fails to fetch the shower. The tree-frog, another sort of song-bird, squeals and chirps at the first indication of a rain-atmosphere, but the rain may fail to come. Birds sing with emphasis after a shower, as if they felt as much refreshed as the violets, and the clover, and the maple-leaves, and no doubt they do thus express some sense of delight in their revivified surroundings, just as they have sung or cackled in pleasant anticipation of the same before it came.

I have seen a mocking-bird eat the best part of a luscious pear or apricot, and then leap to the topmost spray of the tree and sing as if it would trill itself into fragments for very joy of the feast. The shrike cannot sing, but after impaling a grasshopper on a thorn he will make a hideous effort to be melodious over the deed. So the bluejay will utter its softest and sweetest “oodle-doo, oodle-doo,” as soon as it has wiped its bill clear of the bloodstain received in murdering a nest-full of young sparrows. Even the belted kingfisher cackles gleefully every time he swallows a minnow, as the barnyard hen does when she has laid an egg….

Many of our song-birds are consummate actors, within narrow limits, and have a command of gesture that any opera-star might well covet. The comparison between the mocking-bird and any other oscine species must be cut short, however, when it comes to the dénouement—the final outcome of the song—for it is here that our American nightingale is incomparable. In speaking of this, Buffon says: “When it gives full freedom to its voice in bursts wherein the sounds are at first full and brilliant, then softening down by degrees, and finally dying out and losing themselves altogether in a silence as charming as the rarest melody, then it is that one sees it hover gently above its perch, slowly slackening the motion of its wings, and resting quiet at last, as if suspended in mid-air.” But I have seen it go far beyond even this extraordinary performance, and slowly fall to the ground, panting, and apparently exhausted from the effect of its ecstatic climax of exertion. During many visits to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the spring, I have availed myself of ample opportunity to study this Shakespeare of the birds, and I have concluded, from what I think sufficient proof, that the mocking-bird sings, consciously at times, for the purpose of gaining the favor of man. One thing is easily noted: Its song, sung close to human habitations—in the vines and orchards and gardens of man’s planting—is not the same song it sings in the wild depths of the Southern woods. I was so struck with this that I put it to the test in every way I could, and I got so familiar with the difference that, while wandering in the lonely forests, I could know when I was nearing a settler’s clearing or a negro’s cabin by the peculiar notes of the mocking-birds. All along the charming gulf-coast from Mobile to Bay St. Louis, or, in the other direction, to St. Mark’s and Tallahassee, there is not a cot, no matter how lonely or lowly, provided it has a fig-tree, that there is not a pair of mocking-birds to do it honor. The Scuppernong vineyards, too, are the concert-halls of this famous singer. Near the home of Mr. Jefferson Davis, and, I believe, upon the estate of the ex-Confederate chieftain, I sat in the shade of a water-oak and heard a mocking-bird sing, over in a thrifty vineyard, the rare dropping-song of which naturalists appear to have taken no notice. It was a balmy day in March; the sky, the gulf, the air all hazy and shimmering, the whole world swimming in a purplish mist of dreams, and I felt that the song was the expression of some such sweet passionate longing as exhales from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Under the low-hanging boughs, and over the level, daisy-sprinkled ground, I gazed upon the sheeny reach of water, half convinced that I was looking through

  • “Magic casements, opening on the foam
  • Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn,”
  • and the very tones of the bird’s voice accorded with the feeling in which the day was steeped.

    Genuine bird-song is simply the highest form of avian vocalization, by which instinctively, if not premeditatedly, the bird finds expression of pleasure. The absence of true rhythm probably is significant of a want of power to appreciate genuine music, the bird’s comprehension compassing no more than the value of sweet sounds merely as such.

    As to the origin of bird-song, it has come, it seems to me, in response to a growth of the natural desire for a means of expression. Language is the highest mode of expression, and bird-song is a beautiful and witching, but very imperfect, language. In this connection it is a striking fact that all the most gifted avian singers are small. The nightingale and the mocking-bird are insignificant physically, when compared with the ostrich, the condor, and the crane. The entire skull of the mocking-bird is no larger than the end of one’s thumb, and its brain will weigh about one-quarter of an ounce. No great scope of intelligence could be expected in such a case; but we must admit that, in a slender way, this brain is amazingly developed and balanced, and that, compared with man’s, it is proportionately the more powerful and under far better control. If a quarter-ounce brain can shape a bird-voice so as to captivate the imagination of man throughout the ages, what ought a brain of ninety-two cubic inches do with an equal opportunity? Like the musician of old, it should set the very trees to dancing.