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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 anything 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 of 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 proper 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
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,
* The passage in “Hamlet” will occur to every one.
which afterwards continues fixed, and is scarcely ever altered. When the bird is thus become perfect in his lesson, he is said to sing his song round, or in all its varieties of passages, which he connects together, and executes without a pause.”
Barrington defines a bird's song to be a succession of three or more different notes, which are continued without interruption during the same interval with a musical bar of four crotchets in an adagio movement, or whilst a pendulum swings four seconds. Now let us see what notes have been detected in the song. Observers have marked F natural in woodlarks ; A in thrushes ; c falling to a commonly in the cuckoo ; A natural in common cocks; B flat in a very large cock; D in some owls; B flat in others. Thus we have A, B fat, c, d, and F, to which Barrington adds g from his own observations on a nightingale which lived three years in a cage; and he confirms the remarks of the observer who furnished him with the list, and says he has frequently heard from the same bird c and F. To
prove the precision of the pitch of these notes, the B flat of the spinnet by which he tried them was perfectly in tune with the great bell of St. Paul's. then, is the only note wanting to complete the scale; but, as he says,
the six other notes afford sufficient data for making some conjectures with regard to the key in which birds may be supposed to sing, as these intervals can only be found in the key of F with a sharp third, or that of G with a flat third; and he supposed it to be the plaintive flat third, that affecting tone which, in the simple ballad, or “wild and sad” chorus, so comes home to our bosoms.
“ Oft have I listened, and stood still,
As it came softened up the hill,
Who languished for their native glen.” Barrington pronounces in favour of the flat third, because he agrees with Lucretius, that man first learnt musical notes from birds, and because the cuckoo, whose "plain song” has been most attended to, performs it in a flat third. He strengthens his argument by showing that most of our simple compositions-old melodies such as “Morva Rhydland,” and ancient music generally
are almost always in a flat third. The music of the Turks and Chinese, he also adduces as having half of the airs in a minor third, which is "adapted to simple movements such as may be expected in countries where music hath not been long cultivated.”
It will appear, however, from the following observations collected by White, in his enchanting History of Selborne, that neither
cuckoos nor owls keep to one key. One musical friend informs the natural historian that all the owls that are his near neighbours hoot in B flat. But in the next letter to the author whom we have so largely quoted, dated August 1, 1771, before the publication of that zoologist's memoir on the singing of birds, in the Philosophical Transactions, bearing date 1773, White says that a friend remarks that many (most) of his owls hoot in B flat; and that one went almost half a note below A. He adds, that a neighbour with a nice ear remarked that the owls about Selborne hooted in three different keys,-namely, in a flat, or F sharp, in B flat, and a flat.
He heard two hooting to each other, the one in a flat, and the other in B flat.” The same person found that the note of the cuckoo varied in different individuals ; for, about Selborne wood, he observed, they were mostly in d; he heard two sing together, the one in D, the other in D sharp, “who made a disagreeable concert ;" [one should think as much.] He afterwards heard one in D sharp, and, about Woolmer forest, some in c.
It may seem a rather Milesian method of treating the subject of singing birds, to dwell so long upon the notes of cocks, owls, and cuckoos ; but we shall find that the distinctness and simplicity of intonation in these birds afford a much better chance of accurately determining the key than the rapid gush of song of the true warblers ; and it will be necessary, before we enter upon the melodies of that exhilarating tribe, to draw the reader's attention to what may be called the conversational notes of birds.
Those which congregate in bushes keep up a constant twittering, as if to apprize each other of their presence; and all have notes expressive of alarm, or satisfaction, to say nothing of the language of incubation.
These powers may be particularly remarked in the common poultry. The peculiar shrill cry with which the bird of dawning, with uplifted eye, and head raised on one side, to give the widest upward sweep to his vision, gives warning of the horrible advent of the kite or sparrow-hawk; the note with which he gallantly calls his seraglio about him, to feast on the barleycorn which he has found and saved for them; the exulting cackle of Dame Partlet giving notice that one more milk-white egg is added to the careful henwife's treasure, a cackle that is caught up from farm-yard to farm-yard, till the whole village is in an uproar, must be familiar to every one: even the newly-hatched chicken-it is White, we believe, who makes the observation-will seize a fly, if offered to it, with complacent twitterings ; but if a wasp be tendered, a note of aversion and distress is the consequence.
The wild fowl, in their lofty aërial flights, keep up a constant watch-note of communication with each other; and far and wide
in the silence of night does their cry resound. The windpipes of many of these are complete wind instruments ; that of the wild swan takes a turn within the sternum somewhat after the fashion of a French horn or bugle. May not these unearthly sounds, heard from on high,
“At the lone midnight hour, when bad spirits have power," have assisted the legends of the ghostly huntsman, and his wild chase in the air, sweeping overhead like the rush of withered leaves ?
The call, as it is technically termed, of singing birds seems to have an almost miraculous power over the race, as the birdcatcher well knows.
“ When the bird-catcher hath laid his nets, he disposes of his call-birds at proper intervals. It must be owned that there is a most malicious joy in these call-birds to bring the wild ones into the same captivity, which may likewise be observed with regard to the decoy ducks. Their sight and hearing infinitely excel those of the bird-catcher. The instant that the wild birds are perceived, notice is given by one to the rest of the call-birds, (as it is by the first hound that hits on the scent, to the rest of the pack,) after which follows the same sort of tumultuous ecstasy and joy. The call-birds, while the bird is at a distance, do not sing as a bird does in a chamber; they invite the wild ones by what the birdcatchers call short jerks, which, when the birds are good, may be heard at a great distance. The ascendancy by this call, or invitation, is so great, that the wild bird is stopped in its course of flight, and, if not already acquainted with the nets, lights boldly within twenty yards of perhaps three or four bird-catchers, on a spot which otherwise it would not have taken the least notice of. Nay, it frequently happens that, if half a flock only are caught, the remaining half will immediately afterwards light in the nets, and share the same fate; and should only one bird escape, that bird will suffer itself to be pulled at till it is caught-such a fascinating power have the call-birds."
We do not mean to detain the reader upon a bird-catching expedition—though it would be more full of interest than some would think—but he ought to know, before he goes on one, that a bird acquainted with the nets is by the bird-catchers termed a sharper ; him they endeavour to drive away, as they can have no sport in his company. It is worthy of note, too, that even in their captivity the natural instinct of the call-birds is in many points no whit blunted; for the moment they see a hawk, caged though
Barrington on the small birds of flight.