Cheeps, Tweets and Warbles

By McEwen, John | The Spectator, November 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Cheeps, Tweets and Warbles


McEwen, John, The Spectator


WHY BIRDS SING by David Rothenberg Allen Lane, £16.99, pp. 258, ISBN 0713998296 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

A BEDSIDE BOOK OF BIRDS by Graeme Gibson Bloomsbury, £20, pp. 370, ISBN 0747578125 . £16.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

In his old age John Ruskin lamented, 'I have made a great mistake. I have wasted my life with mineralogy, which has led to nothing. Had I devoted myself to birds, their life and plumage, I might have produced something worth doing.' Here are two bird books which have been eminently worth doing. Both are by North Americans but their sweep is global. David Rothenberg is a musician, composer, author and professor; the Canadian, Graeme Gibson, is a renowned novelist and chairman of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. Gibson only succumbed to the charm of birds at 37, which is why he begins his book with the Ruskin quotation.

Rothenberg's interest in birds has also intensified with age -- it is only since 2000 that he has taken to playing music live with them. This forms part of the quest of Why Birds Sing, a book which harmoniously combines music, poetry and science, stories and data. At times a song is reproduced as a sonogram or snatch of musical annotation. A person who can read music will accordingly benefit even more than one who cannot, but the quest is the point.

Why do birds sing? The scientific explanation is to attract a mate (a powerful human motive too, of course) or defend a territory, but even Darwin wrote that birds 'have strong affections, acute perception and a taste for the beautiful'.

Rothenberg agrees. The more he grapples with birdsong, biology and ethology, 'the more it seems closer to artistic elegance than objective certainty'. He concludes that birds sing for the same reason we do -- because they must. And they were singing long before us, and may well sing long after we are history.

He gives ample proof of the intelligence of birds and the complexity of their songs, and cites all manner of powerful supportive witnesses: scientific, philosophic, poetic and musical. There is also his own understanding of birdsong, derived from their response to his improvised accompaniments on clarinet, saxophone and other instruments.

Many musicians and composers have found birdsong inspiring. …

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