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"Anna-Marie, love, up is the sun,
Mists are dispersing, love, birds singing free,
THE melody of birds finds its way to the heart of every one; but the cause that prompts the outpourings that make copse, rock, and river, ring again on a fine spring morning is more a matter of doubt with ornithologists than the uninitiated in zoological mysteries might suppose. Much has been written on this subject, but upon a consideration of the different opinions, aided by our own observations, we are inclined to think that love and rivalry are the two great stimulants, though we do not mean to deny that a bird may sing from mere gaiety of heart arising from finding itself in the haunts dear to it, and in the midst of plenty of the food it likes; to give vent, in short, to the buoyancy of spirit arising from general pleasurable sensations.
In this country the season of reproduction is undoubtedly that wherein
"The isle is full of pleasant noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight."
And about ten weeks have been mentioned as the period during which most of our wild birds are in song. That there are exceptions to this rule there is no doubt. We have heard a wild thrush, one of the sweetest singers of his tribe, sing far into September, but we watched narrowly, and never could find that he had a mate. Then, again, we have the autumnal and even the winter notes of the robin long after the breeding season; and
caged birds, if well fed and kept, will sing the greatest part of the year.
Let us endeavour, before we proceed further, to give the reader some idea of the natural musical instrument with which the loud and complicated passages of song-birds are executed. The larynx is formed much after the fashion of some artificial wind-instruments, and consists of two parts; of these the first contains the proper rima glottidis, at the upper end, while the bronchial, or lower larynx, is furnished with another rima glottidis with tense membranes. The lower apparatus may be compared to the reed in a clarionet or hautboy, and the upper to the ventage or hole of the instrument that utters the note. Besides all this, it has been truly asserted that there is no part of a bird's structure impervious to air; and, as M. Jacquemin observes, it is the volume of air which birds can introduce into their bodies, and the force with which they can expel it, that solve the problem how so small a creature as a singing bird can be capable of sending forth notes so loud, and of warbling so long and so prodigally, without apparent fatigue. The muscles, whose province it is to regulate this wonderful wind-instrument, are proportionally strong and highly developed in the sex which is more peculiarly gifted with musical power. Thus John Hunter, on dissecting a cocknightingale, a cock and hen blackbird, a cock linnet, and a cock and hen chaffinch, found the muscles of the larynx to be stronger in the nightingale than in any other bird of the same size; and in all the instances where he dissected both cock and hen, he remarked that the same muscles were stronger in the cock. The rivalry with which some of these feathered songsters will sing against each other in captivity is well-known to bird-fanciers: and Bechstein observes, speaking of the Thuringian Canary birds, that there are some males which, especially in the pairing season, sing with so much strength and ardour, that they burst the delicate vessels of the lungs and die suddenly.
The Hon. Daines Barrington, who paid much attention to this subject, remarks that some passages of the song in a few kinds of birds correspond with the intervals of our musical scale; but that much the greater part of such a song is not capable of musical notations. He attributes this to the following causes :-First, because the rapidity is often so great, and it is also so uncertain where they may stop, that it is impossible to reduce the passages to form a musical bar in any time whatsoever; secondly, on account of the pitch of most birds being considerably higher than the most shrill notes of instruments of the greatest compass ;and lastly, because the intervals used by birds are commonly so minute that we cannot judge at all of them from the more gross intervals into which our musical octave is divided.
But though, as the same author observes, we cannot attain the more delicate and imperceptible intervals in the song of birds, yet many of them are capable of whistling tunes with our more gross intervals, as in the case of piping bullfinches and canary birds. This faculty of learning the first notes that the bird is able to distinguish, leads us to another interesting part of our subject; and we will now proceed to the experiments made by Daines Barrington, showing that the varied songs which distinguish different species of birds, are the consequence of the parental notes which first meet their ears.
The learned author states, that to be certain that a nestling will not have even the call of its species, it should be taken from the nest when only a day or two old; because, though nestlings cannot see till the seventh day, yet they can hear from the instant they are hatched, and, probably from that circumstance, attend to sounds more than they do afterwards, especially as the call of the parents announces the arrival of their food. After stating the trouble of breeding up a bird of this tender age, and admitting that he himself never reared one, he goes on to speak of a linnet and a goldfinch which he had seen, and which were taken from their nests when only two or three days old, and to mention some other curious instances of imitation in the following
"The first of these (the linnet) belonged to Mr. Matthews, an apothecary at Kensington, which, from a want of other sounds to imitate, almost articulated the words pretty boy, as well as some other short sentences. I heard the bird myself repeat the words pretty boy and Mr. Matthews assured me, that he had neither the note nor call of any bird whatsoever. This talking linnet died last year, before which many people went from London to hear him speak."
"The goldfinch I have before mentioned, was reared in the town of Knighton, in Radnorshire, which I happened to hear as I was walking by the house where it was kept. I thought, indeed, that a wren was singing; and I went into the house to inquire after it, as that little bird seldom lives long in a cage. The people of the house, however, told me that they had no bird but a goldfinch, which they conceived to sing its own natural note as they called it; upon which I stayed a considerable time in the room, whilst its notes were merely those of a wren, without the least mixture of goldfinch. On further inquiries, I found that the bird had been taken from the nest when only a day or two old, that it was hung in a window which was opposite to a small garden, whence the nestling had undoubtedly acquired the notes of the wren, without having had any opportunity of learning even the call of a goldfinch. These facts which I have stated seem to prove very deci
sively that birds have not any innate ideas of the notes which are supposed to be peculiar to each species. But it will possibly be asked, why, in a wild state, they adhere so steadily to the same song, insomuch, that it is well known, before the bird is heard, what notes you are to expect from him? This, however, arises entirely from the nestling's attending only to the instruction of the parent bird, whilst it disregards the notes of all others, which may, perhaps, be singing around him. Young Canary birds are frequently reared in a room where there are many other sorts, and yet I have been informed that they only learn the song of the parent cock. Every one knows that the common house-sparrow, when in a wild state, never does any thing but chirp; this does not, however, arise from want of power in this bird to imitate others, but because he only attends to the parental note."
Two points in this interesting description will be noted by the observer, and the questions will occur-how was the first bird of each species taught, and is not the assertion touching the sparrow somewhat bold?
The difficulty surrounding the first is more apparent than real; for, if it be granted that species were created, all the distinctions of voice and plumage follow of course; and it will equally follow that they have been regularly transmitted down to the present period in such species as have not become extinct. With regard to the second we shall permit Mr. Barrington to speak for himself, for he has proved the fact :
"To prove this decisively, I took a common sparrow from the nest, when it was fledged, and educated him under a linnet: the bird, however, by accident, heard a goldfinch also, and his song was, therefore, a mixture of the linnet and goldfinch.'
The same experimentalist educated a young robin, under a very fine nightingale, which, however, began already to be out of song, and was perfectly mute in less than a fortnight: the scholar afterwards sang three parts in four nightingale, and the rest of his song was what the bird-catchers call "rubbish," or no particular note whatever.
Bechstein observes that nearly all birds when young will learn some strain whistled or played to them every day; but those only whose memory is retentive will abandon their natural song and adopt fluently the air that has been taught them. In proof of this position, he adduces the cases of the goldfinch and bullfinch, stating that a young goldfinch will, indeed, learn some part of the melody played to a bullfinch, but will never repeat the lesson so perfectly as the latter, and that this difference is not caused by the greater or less flexibility of the organ of the voice, but rather by the superiority of the bullfinch's memory.
In the cultivation and management of the human voice, and to
keep up its tone, and the power ef execution, we know how necessary constant practice is; and we find the same sort of discipline resorted to both by caged birds, and those which pour forth their "wood notes wild."
"It is remarkable," says Bechstein, "that birds which do not sing all the year, such as the redbreast, siskin, and goldfinch, seem obliged, after moulting, to learn to warble, as though they had forgotten; but I have seen enough to convince me that these attempts are merely to render the larynx pliant, and are a kind of chirping, the notes of which have but little relation to the song; for a slight attention will discover that the larynx becomes gradually capable of giving the common warble. This method of recovering the song does not, then, show deficiency of memory, but liability to rigidity, occasioned by disuse of the larynx. The chaffinch will exercise itself in this way some weeks before it attains its former proficiency, and the nightingale practises as long the strains of his beautiful song, before he gives it full, clear, and in all its extent."
This "practising" is termed by our British bird-fanciers and bird-catchers, "recording," a word, according to Daines Barrington, probably derived from the musical instrument formerly used in England, called a "recorder,"* which seems to have been a species of flute, and was probably used to teach young birds to pipe notes. The term "recording" is more particularly used by the same fraternity, to distinguish the attempt of the nestling to sing, and which may be compared to the babble of a child in its imperfect endeavours to articulate.
"I have known," says Barrington, "instances of birds beginning to record when they were not a month old. This first essay does not seem to have the least rudiments of the future song; but as the bird grows older and stronger, one may begin to perceive what the nestling is aiming at. Whilst the scholar is thus endeavouring to form his song, when he is once sure of a passage he commonly raises his tone, which he drops again when he is not equal to what he is attempting; just as a singer raises his voice, when he not only recollects certain parts of a tune with precision, but knows that he can execute them. What the nestling is not thus thoroughly master of, he hurries over, lowering his tone, as if he did not wish to be heard, and could not yet satisfy himself. A young bird commonly continues to record for ten or eleven months, when he is able to execute every part of his song, which afterwards continues fixed, and is scarcely ever altered. When the bird is thus become perfect in his lesson, he is
* The passage in "Hamlet" will occur to every one.