9. Too Many Theories and Not Enough Birdsong
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235 C H A P T E R 9 Too Many Theories and Not Enough Birdsong Horseshoe Bay Road, Bowen, North Queensland, 28 October 2015, 4:13 am: The moon is full and so is the throat of a pied butcherbird who is perched high on a utility wire and facing the ocean. Set over me like a numinous angel, the bird contrasts gymnastic upward vocal leaps with steep downward frequency sweeps and delicate turns and whorls with stationary syncopated notes. There’s no competition except the crash of waves and a distant conspecific’s broken snatches wafting on the tropical air. Surely our soloist deserves a better duet partner than the oscillating mosquito whine that intrudes at 5:00 am. Soon after, a willie wagtail adds hisagilesoprano,andthenaneasternkoel(Eudynamys orientalis)ratchets up a semitone with each rushed “koel-koel-koel-koel-koel.” Other birds, insects, and frogs gradually embellish the texture, and as thesunrises,anactivebiophonyprovidesorchestralaccompaniment.Our soloist is vigilant, glancing back and forth, yet apparently able to tune out much of what goes on, like the long opening and closing envelope of a jogger passing in one direction while a van rumbles in the other. They meet under the bird, and of course I’m also standing right there—but nothing disruptsthesong’space.Whenamagpie-larklandsonthewirejustinches away, the pied butcherbird delivers a few closing phrases and flies off. Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. —Albert Einstein 236 is birdsong music? Like all good artists, this soloist has conviction; s/he owns the stage. Without this bird, the chorus would still be substantial, but no individual would demand to be heard the way a pied butcherbird does. The raucous intermittent“laughing”ofkookaburrasinfullchucklemodeiscomparing applesandoranges.Icanimaginethedawnchoruswithoutapiedbutcherbird ; what I cannot imagine is this soloist—I am unable to match up what I used to expect from a bird’s song with what I hear. Theoretical and Methodological Challenges for Zoömusicology Will the musicality of sophisticated songbirds be championed? Will zoöcentric musicians participate in connecting the interdisciplinary dots in birdsong analysis? Will scientists forge a link with alternative ways of knowledge so that they and musicologists can swap stories? I believe they will. While no challenge to science’s grip, zoömusicology is nonetheless an enthusiastic partner, one with the potential to alter contours of inquiry andcomplementscientificresultswithquestionsothersarenotbothering topose.ThinkingwithAldoLeopold,thenaturalsciencesandmusicology can be taught separately, but they cannot be deployed separately to solve issues of musicality in birdsong. Forthosepreparedtostudybirdsongasmusic,goodrecordingsofgood birdsong are not sufficient—zoömusicology needs good questions and methodologies. Ethologist Peter Marler speaks to this topic: “The whole phenomenon of the inventive potential of birds is understudied, very difficult to study, and I’m quite convinced that the possibilities are remarkable if you could only document them convincingly.”1 With a mandate for broadexplanatoryprinciplesandconvincingmethodologies,scientistsare expected to sidestep troublesome details: “You have to pretend when you presentageneralization,thatthingsaremuchclearerthantheyreallyare,” instructs Marler.2 Some observations become data, while others become anomalies to be tidied up.3 Complex birdsongs can be such anomalies. This returns us to the pressure to study songbirds in a controlled setting . Many elaborate and complex songs come from those species least Too Many Theories and Not Enough Birdsong 237 suitable for laboratory housing. Although not useful for identifying nocturnal singers, especially those with multiple songposts, the banding of wild birds will for some be an acceptable middle ground. Key for me has been working ethically with animal partners and recognizing their agency. While investigating them in their natural environment provides rich results, such study is expensive, as mine has been (both personally and institutionally), and may be met with the contention that the results are not as reliable as laboratory findings. This argument goes both ways. As I indicated at the outset, I am content to give up experimental control and laboratory supervision with the confidence that if my research were dependentuponbirdssinginginsuchasetting,myunderstandingoftheir vocal world would be severely compromised.4 In any case, these days a wealth of precision recording and measuring devices is available to accompany researchers into the field. Laboratory control is also pertinent in how we get our epistemological bearings—whether we understand knowledge as situated or neutral, subjective or objective, a product of the embodiment of our senses or one unmarked by prejudice—the mythic “god trick of seeing [and hearing] everything from nowhere.”5 Yet, despite our differences, the natural sciences and musicology can benefit by together thinking through issues related to birdsong. Another institutional stumbling block in...


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Subject Headings

  • Birdsongs -- Australia.
  • Butcherbirds -- Behavior -- Australia.
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