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Monique Keiran: The season to listen to birds’ conversations

Bald eagles could be the bird world’s version of heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. The eagle is a big bruiser of a bird. It bullies other birds, steals meals and scavenges whenever it can.

Bald eagles could be the bird world’s version of heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. The eagle is a big bruiser of a bird. It bullies other birds, steals meals and scavenges whenever it can.

Yet, during mating season, incongruously thin, flutey, soprano-sweet nuthin’s emerge from the predator’s slasher beak. The voice belies the bird’s reputation and lifestyle.

In addition to eagles’ springtime singing along the Gorge Waterway, I’ve noticed local ravens pairing up and chortling among themselves. Robins now strive to out-chirp each other, varied thrushes rend mornings with off-key whistles and towhees mimic hinges in need of oil.

The chestnut-backed chickadee has changed its tune from “chickadee-dee” to its “Hey, baby” pickup line. And the Pacific wren’s lovelorn avian arias make me wonder how these tiny opera singers can sustain so many trills and arpeggios with just one breath.

It’s easy enough to guess what they’re singing about right now. Something along the lines of “Let’s make beautiful music together” to the ladies, and “Get off my beat or I’ll beat you up” to other guys. These themes play out in human songs as well, as Pacific Opera Victoria’s performance of Tosca demonstrates this month. They also cause many of the same emotional responses in both animals.

Apparently, the female white-throated sparrows breeding in B.C.’s forests respond to the songs of male sparrows in the same way that humans respond to pleasant music. The reward centres in the sparrow brains light up just as ours do, say researchers who scanned the bird brains.

Male sparrows, on the other hand, find songs of other males alarming and stressful. Their brains’ fear, loathing and anger centres light up, as ours do when we hear the da-dum da-dum sequences in scary-movie soundtracks, or when we face down opponents.

Birdsong and human language share other characteristics. Rules govern how birds string notes and trills together, just as grammar and syntax regulate how we use words and construct sentences. In one example, brain researchers remixed Bengalese finch song three ways, and played the re-ordered recorded chirps back to the birds. The birds ignored two revised tunes, indicating the original message survived the remix. They became agitated with the third tune, however, suggesting the new tune didn’t make sense in Finch.

The birds’ reaction may resemble griping by a certain writer when she’s confronted with text messaging: Is that supposed to be “lots of luck,” “lots of love” or “laugh out loud”? And what is happening to spelling and grammar these days, anyway?

Some birds sing to their unborn chicks. I know human mothers-to-be who play Mozart to their belly-babes in hopes of giving the children a possible edge in musical, mathematical or just plain intellectual genius. Whether the strategy works in humans is unclear, but Australia’s fairy wrens sing prenatal lullabies to avoid being saddled with the care and feeding of chicks of freeloader species.

Yes, slackers exist even in Birdland. Cuckoos and cowbirds, for example, avoid parental responsibility by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. Their eggs hatch first. The chicks then monopolize their unwitting surrogate parents and often trample or eject adoptive siblings from the nest.

Meanwhile, the deadbeat parents are out tweeting it up at cuckoo/cowbird parties.

In a variation on the strategy that thwarted the abduction of a young Toronto girl last month, the fairy wrens avoid exploitation-by-cuckoo by teaching secret passwords to their own unborn chicks. In Toronto, the stranger who tried to pick up the 10-year-old after school was unable to provide the password she and her parents had arranged. In fairy-wren nests, if a new chick doesn’t include the secret password in its calls for food, the wren parents may abandon the nest and start over elsewhere.

So step outside and listen to the chirps, whistles and twitters going on around you. Even if the singing is over your head and beyond your grasp, the bird banter may include the same conversations you’re having with your own family, friends and acquaintances.