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The Atlantic Monthly | August 1858
 
The Singing-Birds and their Songs

by Wilson Flagg
 
.....
 
HOSE persons enjoy the most happiness, if possessed of a benevolent heart and favored by ordinary circumstances of fortune, who have acquired by habit and education the power of deriving pleasure from objects that lie immediately around them. But these common sources of happiness are opened to those only who are endowed with genius, or who have received a certain kind of intellectual training. The more ordinary the mental and moral organization and culture of the individual, the more far-fetched and dear-bought must be his enjoyments. Nature has given us in full development only those appetites which are necessary to our physical well-being. She has left our moral appetites and capacities in the germ, to be developed by education and circumstances. Hence those agreeable sensations that come chiefly from the exercise of the imagination, which may be called the pleasures of sentiment, are available only to persons of a peculiar refinement of mind. The ignorant and rude may be dazzled and delighted by physical beauty, and charmed by loud and stirring sounds; but those more simple melodies and less attractive colors and forms that appeal to the mind for their principal effect act more powerfully upon individuals of superior culture.

In proportion as we have been trained to be agreeably affected by the outward forms of Nature, and the sounds that proceed from the animate and inanimate world, are we capable of being made happy witbout resorting to expensive and vulgar recreations. It ought, therefore, to be one of tbe chief points in the education of youth, while teaching them the still more important offices of humanity, to cultivate and enliven their susceptibility to the charms of natural objects. Then would the aspects of Nature, continually changing with the progress of the seasons and the sounds that enliven their march, satisfy, in a great measure, that craving for agreeable sensations which leads mankind away from humble and healthful pursuits to those of a more artificial and exciting life. The value of such pleasures consists not so much in their cheapness as in their favorable moral influences, which improve the heart, while they lead the mind to observations that pleasantly exercise and develope, without tasking its powers. The quiet emotions, half musical and half poetical, which are awakened by listening to the songs of birds, belong to this class of refined enjoyments.

But the music of birds, though agreeable to all, conveys positive and durable pleasure only to those who have learned to associate with their notes, in connection with the scenes of Nature, a thousand interesting and romantic images. To many persons of this character it affords more delight than the most brilliant music of the opera or the concert. In vain, therefore, will it be said, as an objection, that the notes of birds have no charm, save that which is derived from association, and that, considered as music, they do not equal that of the most simple reed or flageolet. It is sufficient to remark, that the most delightful influences of Nature proceed from those sights and sounds that appeal to the imagination and affections through the medium of slight and almost insensible impressions made upon the eye and the ear. At the moment when these physical impressions exceed a certain mean, the spell is broken, and the enjoyment becomes sensual, not intellectual. How soon, indeed, would the songs of birds lose their effect, if they were loud and brilliant, like a band of instruments! It is their simplicity that gives them their charm.

As a further illustration of this point, it may be remarked that simple melodies have among all people exercised a greater power over the imagination than louder and more complicated music. Nature employs a very small amount of physical sensation to create an intellectual passion, and when an excess is used a diminished effect is produced. I am persuaded that the effect of a great part of our sacred music is lost by an excess of harmony and a too great volume of sound. On the same principle, a loud crash of thunder deafens and terrifies; but its low and distant rumbling produces an agreeable emotion of sublimity.

The songs of birds are as intimately allied with poetry as with music. The lark has been aptly denominated a feathered lyric"" by one of the English poets; and the analogy becomes apparent when we consider how much the song of a bird resembles a lyrical ballad in its influence on the mind. Though it utters no words, how plainly it suggests a long train of agreeable images of love, beauty, friendship, and home! When a young person has suffered any severe wound of the affections, he seldom fails, if endowed with a sensitive mind, to listen to the birds as sharers in his affliction. Through them the deities of the groves seem to offer him their consolation. By indulging this habit of making companionship with the objects of Nature, all pleasing sights and sounds gradually become certain anodynes for his sorrow; and those who have this mental alembic for turning grief into a poetic melancholy can seldom be reduced to a state of absolute despondency. Poetry, or rather the poetic sentiment, exalts all our pleasures and soothes all our afflictions by some illusive charm, whether it be turned into the channel of religion or romance. Without this reflection of light from the imagination, what is the passion of love? and what is our love of beauty and of sweet sounds, but a mere gravitation?

The voice of every singing-bird has its associations in the minds of all susceptible persons who were born and nurtured within the precincts of its untutored minstrelsy. The music of birds is modulated in pleasant unison with all the chords of affection and imagination, filling the soul with a lively consciousness of happiness and beauty, and soothing it with romantic visions of memory,—of love, when it was an ethereal sentiment of adoration and not a passion, and of friendship, when it was a passion and not an expedience,—of dear and simple adventures, and of comrades who had part in them,—of dappled mornings, and serene and glowing sunsets,—of sequestered nooks and mossy seats in the old wood,—of paths by the riverside, and flowers that smiled a bright welcome to our rambling,—of lingering departures from home, and of old by-ways, overshadowed by trees and hedged with roses and viburnums, that spread their shade and their perfume around our path to gladden our return. By this pleasant instrumentality has Nature provided for the happiness of those who have learned to be delighted with the survey of her works, and with the sound of those voices which she has appointed to communicate to the human soul the joys of her inferior creation.

The singing-birds, with reference to their songs, may be divided into four classes. First, the Rapid Singers, whose song is uninterrupted, of considerable length, and uttered with fervor, and in apparent ecstasy. Second, the Moderate Singers, whose notes are slowly modulated, but without pauses or rests between their different strains. Third, the Interrupted Singers, who seldom modulate their notes with rapidity, and make decided pauses between their several strains, of which there are in general from five to eight or nine. Fourth, the Warblers, whose notes consist of only one or two strains, not combined into a song.

The canary, among foreign birds, and the linnet and bobolink, among American birds, are familiar examples of the first class; the common robin and the veery of the second; the wood-thrush, the cat- bird, and the mocking-bird, of the third; and the blue-bird, the pewee, and the purple martin, of the fourth class. It may be added, that some birds are nearly periodical in their habits of singing, pre- ferring the morning and evening, and occasional periods in other parts of the day, while others sing almost indifferently at all hours. The greater number of species, however, are more tuneful in the early morning than at any other hour.

June, in this part of the world, is the most vocal month of the year. Many of our principal songsters do not arrive until near the middle of May; and all, whether they come early or late, continue in song throughout the month of June. The bobolink, which is one of the first to become silent, continues vocal until the second week in July. So nearly simultaneous is the discontinuance of the songs of this species, that it might seem as if their silence were preconcerted, and that by a vote they had on a certain day, adjourned over to another year. If an unusually genial day occurs about the seventh of July, we may hear multitudes ofthem singing merrily on that occasion. Should this time be followed by two or three successive days of chilly and rainy weather, their tunefulness is so generally brought to a close during this period, that we may not hear another musical note from a single individual after the seventh. The songs of birds are discontinued as soon as their amorous dalliances and the care of their offspring have ceased. Hence those birds that raise but one brood of young during the season, like the bobolink, are the first to become silent.

No one of the New England birds is an autumnal warbler; though the song-sparrow often greets the fine mornings in October with his lays, and the shore-lark, after spending the summer in Labrador and about the shores of HudsonÕs Bay, is sometimes heard in autumn, soaring and singing at the dawn of day, while on his passage to the South. The bobolink, the veery, or WilsonÕs thrush, the red thrush, and the golden robin, are silent after the middle of July; the wood-thrush, the cat-bird, and the common robin, not until a month later; but the song-sparrow alone continues to sing throughout the summer. The tuneful season of the year, in New England, embraces a period of about four months, from the middle of April to the middle of August.

There are certain times of the day, as well as certain seasons of the year, when the birds are most musical. The grand concert of the feathered tribe takes place during the hour between dawn and sunrise. During the remainder of the day they sing less in concert, though many species are very musical at noonday, and seem, like the nocturnal birds, to prefer the hour when others are silent. At sunset there is an apparent attempt to unite once more in chorus, but this is far from being so loud or so general as in the morning. The little birds which I have classed in the fourth division are a very important accompaniment to the anthem of dawn, their notes, though short, serving agreeably to fill up the pauses made by the other musicians. Thus, the hair-bird (Fringilla Socialis) has a sharp and trilling note, without any modulation, and not at all melodious, when heard alone; but in the morning it is the chief harmonizer of the whole chorus, and serves, more than any other voice, to give unity and symphony to the multitude of miscellaneous parts.

There are not many birds whose notes could be accurately described upon the gamut. The nearest approach we can make to accuracy is to give some general idea of their time and modulation. Their musical intervals can be distinguished but with difficulty, on account of the rapidity of their utterance. I have often attempted to transcribe some of their notes upon the musical scale, but I am persuaded that such sketches can be only approximations to literal correctness. As different individuals of the same species sing very differently, the notes, as transcribed from the song of one individual, will never exactly represent the song of another. If we listen attentively, however, to a number of songs, we shall detect in all of them a theme, as it is termed by musicians, of which the different individuals of the species warble their respective variations. Every song is, technically speaking, a fantasia constructed upon this theme, from which none of the species ever departs.

It is very generally believed that the singing-birds are confined to temperate latitudes, and that the tropical birds have not the gift of song. That this is an error is apparent from the testimony of travellers, who speak of the birds in the Sandwich Islands and New Zealand as singing delightfully, and some fine songsters are occasionally imported in cages from tropical climates. The origin of this notion may be explained in several ways. It is worthy of notice that within the tropics the singing season of different species of birds does not occur at the same time. One species may be musical in the spring, another in summer, and others in autumn and winter. When one species, therefore, has begun to sing, another has ceased, so that, at whatever time of the year the traveller stops, he hears but few birds engaged in song.

In the temperate latitudes, on the contrary, as soon as the birds arrive, they commence building their nests, and become musical at the same time. If a stranger from a tropical climate should arrive in this country in the spring, and remain here during the months of May and June, he would hear more birds singing together than he ever heard at once in his own clime; but were he to arrive about the middle of July, when the greater number of our birds have discontinued their songs, he would probably, if he knew the reputation of the Northern birds, marvel a little at their silence. If there are as many birds singing at one time during the whole year, in the hot climates, as we hear in this country in the latter half of summer, the greater average would appear to be on the side of the former.

It may also be remarked, that the singing-birds of the tropics are not so well known as those of temperate latitudes which are inhabited by civilized men. The savages and barbarians, who are the principal inhabitants of hot countries, are seldom observant of the habits or the voices of the singing-birds. A musician of the feathered race, as well as a harpist or violinist, must have an appreciating audience, or his powers can never be made known to the world. But even with the same audience, the tropical singing-birds would probably be less esteemed than songsters of equal merit in the temperate latitudes; for, amid the stridulous and deafening sounds made by the insects in warm climates, the notes of birds would be scarcely audible.

We are still inclined, to believe, however, that there is a larger proportion of musical birds in the temperate than in the torrid zone, because in the former region there are more of those species that build low and live among the grass and shrubbery, and it is well known that the singing-birds are mostly of the latter description. In warm climates the vegetation consists chiefly of trees and tall vines, forming together an umbrageous canopy overhead, with but a scanty undergrowth. In temperate latitudes the shrubbery predominates, especially in the most northerly parts. Moreover, the grasses that furnish by their seeds a great proportion of the food of the smaller birds are almost entirely wanting in the torrid zone.

The birds that live in trees are remarkable for their brilliant plumage; those that live upon the ground and in the shrubbery are plainly dressed. This is a provision of Nature for their protection, as the ground-birds must have a predominance of tints that resemble the general hues of the surface of the earth. I do not know a single brightly-plumed bird that nestles upon the ground, unless the bobolink may be considered an exception. They are almost invariably colored like sparrows. The birds that inhabit the trees, on the other hand, need less of this protection, though the females are commonly of an olive or greenish yellow, which harmonizes with the general hue of the foliage, and screens them from observation, while sitting upon the nest. The male, on the contrary, who seldom sits upon the nest, requires a plumage that will render him conspicuous to the female and to the young, after they have left their nest. It is remarkable, that Nature, in all cases in which she has created a difference in the plumage of the male and female, has used the hues of their plumage only for the protection of the mother and the young, for whose advantage she has dressed the male parent in colors that must somewhat endanger his own safety.

The color of the plumage of birds seems to bear less relation to their powers of song than to their habitats; and as the birds that live in trees are commonly less tuneful, they are more brilliantly arrayed. The bird employs his song in wooing his mate, as well as in entertaining her after she is wedded; and it is not unlikely that Nature may have compensated those which are deficient in song by giving them a superior beauty of plumage. As the offices of courtship devolve entirely upon the males, it is the more necessary that they should be possessed of conspicuous attractions; but as the task of sitting upon the nest devolves upon the female, she requires more of that protection which arises from the conformity of her plumage with the general hue of the objects that surround her nest. While she is sitting, the plain hues of her dress protect her from observation; but when she leaves her nest to seek her companion, she is enabled by his brilliant colors the more easily to discover him. The male is diligent in providing for the wants of the offspring, and hence it is important that his dress should render him conspicuous. When the young birds have left the nest, upon seeing the flash of his plumage, they immediately utter their call, and by this note, which might not otherwise be sounded at the right moment, he detects them and supplies them with food. Should a bird of prey suddenly come into their neighborhood, he overlooks the plainly-dressed mother and offspring, and gives chase to the male parent, who not only escapes, but at the same time diverts the attention of the foe from his defenceless progeny.

But the birds that build low, either upon the ground or among the shrubbery, are exposed to a greater number and variety of enemies. Hence it becomes necessary that the males as well as the females should have that protection which is afforded by sobriety of color. Not being made conspicuous by their plumage, they are endowed with the gift of song, that they may make known their presence to their mate and their young by their voice. I have often thought that the song of the bird was designed by Nature for the benefit of the young, no less than for the entertainment of his mate. The sounds uttered by birds on account of their young always precede the period of incubation. The common hen begins to cluck several days before she begins to sit upon her eggs. In like manner the male singing-bird commences his song when the pair are making ready to build their nest. While his mate is sitting, his song reminds her of his presence, and inspires her with a feeling of security and content, during the period of her confinement. As soon as the young are hatched, they begin to learn his voice and grow accustomed to it, and when they fly from the nest they are prevented by the sound of it from wandering and getting bewildered. If they happen to fly beyond certain bounds, the song of the male parent warns them of their distance, and causes them to turn and draw near the place from which it seems to issue. Thus the song of the male bird, always uttered within a certain circumference, of which the nest is the centre, becomes a kind of sentinel voice, to keep the young birds within prudent limits.

It is not easy to explain why a larger proportion of the birds that occupy trees should be destitute of song, except on the supposition that in such elevated situations the young are more easily guided by sight than by hearing. Still there are many songsters which are dressed in brilliant plumage, and of these we have some examples among our native birds. These, however, are evident exceptions to the general fact, and we may trace a plain analogy in this respect between birds and insects. The musical insects are, we believe, invariably destitute of brilliant plumage. Butterflies and moths do not sing; the music of insects comes chiefly from the plainly-dressed locust and grasshopper tribes.

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The Atlantic Monthly; August 1858; The Singing-Birds and their Songs; Volume 2, No. 10; page 285.