What we can learn about ourselves by listening to birdsong

Birdsong is complex. Despite a great deal of research, much remains a mystery, including whether "song" is even the right term to categorise the sounds birds make. Humans are quick - perhaps too quick - to judge the characteristic qualities of birdsong solely according to its aesthetic appeal.

When it comes to hearing, people and birds not only respond to a different, albeit overlapping, range of frequencies, but also perceive certain sounds in a qualitatively different way. Beyond that, many acoustic details are lost to us when we break down birds' vocal expressions into their individual components and focus on their audio frequencies.

The anthropomorphic interpretation of these sounds as "song" suggests that birds produce these sounds for pleasure; however, there are other, more obvious, reasons for vocalising, such as defending territory or attracting a mate. According to recent research, the accuracy with which a bird can repeat certain patterns of sound might signal the bird's physical condition and its fitness as a mate.

The attempt to translate bird sounds and "melodies" into meaningful human speech patterns is, quite simply, impossible.

Not everyone has the ability to mimic birds, but a little practice can go a long way. You need both acute hearing and vocal skill. Englishman Percy Edwards (1908-96) was well known for both. He was a frequent guest on radio shows and could imitate the sounds of 600 different birds, as well as other animals, including whales, reindeer, and sheep. He was not only a much-loved entertainer, but also a recognised ornithologist.

Luis F. Baptista (1942-2000)???a famous bioacoustics expert who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Macao but spent most of his life in the United States - could imitate numerous birds from Alaska to Costa Rica and soon became known as the "maestro of the avian symphony." He championed the idea that certain birds even create dialects, and he believed he could identify where white-crowned sparrows were from thanks to differences in their songs. He also talked of bilingual or trilingual birds. Once when he was out in Presidio Park in San Francisco making recordings with his parabolic reflector, he was arrested on suspicion of being a Communist spy.

When it became technically possible to record the sounds birds make, new horizons opened up for bird lovers. It is certainly no accident that musicians were among the pioneers here.

One example is the German violinist and singer Ludwig Koch (1881-1974), who devised special recording equipment to take along when he accompanied ornithologists out into songbirds' territories. He made his first recordings with an Edison wax-cylinder phonograph when he was a boy, and he was one of the first people to notice the spread of the collared dove in Europe after the 1930s. After immigrating to England in 1936, he continued his work in the form of books and radio programs, and established himself as the European pioneer of recording wild birds in their natural surroundings.

Albert R. Brand (1889-1940), one of Koch's contemporaries, worked as a trader on the New York Stock Exchange before going out into the countryside, armed with cumbersome equipment he had developed himself, to record bird sounds. The recordings he and his colleagues made at the end of the 1920s are the basis for the audio archive at Cornell University, the Macaulay Library, which is now the world's leading scientific collection of biodiversity media. After writing a book about wild bird songs, in the late 1930s, Brand produced an entire album of American bird songs. The Albert R. Brand Bird Song Foundation was set up in his name.

There are a great number of musicians who have birdsong to thank for their inspiration and who work it into their compositions in every conceivable way.

The birdsongs in the first scene of Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose) by Richard Strauss come to mind, or Ludwig van Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony with its bird calls, where yellowhammers, quail, nightingales, and cuckoos apparently helped with the composition (though this is debatable as it's more likely he wrote the piece at his desk in Vienna than at a desk on the banks of a woodland stream).

Gli Uccelli (The Birds), a baroque suite for strings by the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, features movements marked as "The Hen", "The Nightingale", "The Dove" and so on. And the last two minutes of the third movement of the symphonic poem Pini di Roma (Roman Pines) include bird sounds - on a clear night under a full moon, a nightingale is singing in the branches of a pine.

French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) was encouraged early on by one of his teachers to listen to birds. He collected birdsongs from many different parts of the world, which he incorporated into his work. He considered his transcriptions of birdsongs to be "absolutely true to life".

Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird), composed for flute and piano, is based on the blackbird's song. Reveil des Oiseaux (The Birds Awaken), a piece for full orchestra, is courtesy of the birds you can hear between midnight and midday in the Jura Mountains in France.

Finally, Messiaen's piece Oiseaux Exotiques (Exotic Birds), for piano and small orchestra, offers the voices of little-known birds from distant lands. Messiaen was a devout Catholic, and for him, birds received their gift from God and were the most talented musicians in the world. Messiaen, for his part, might not have been the ornithologist he claimed to be, but he was a wonderful composer.

Inspired by Chinese and Asian pigeon whistles in the collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford artist and composer-in-residence Nathaniel Mann created a kinetic multimedia piece involving a flock of specially trained Birmingham roller pigeons. He built his own pigeon whistle using a cut-down plastic 35-millimetre film canister, a couple of ice-pop sticks, and a sliver of a broken record. He built 15 whistles, each capable of producing a different note, and each pigeon had a whistle attached to its tail feathers. As soon as the birds took flight, air drawn through the whistles produced a cluster of tones - celestial music, if you will.

The American musician-philosopher-engineer-professor David Rothenberg appears a little out of step with the times, although in a unique and charming way. It could even be that he is not so much out of step with the times as striding out ahead of them. For 15 years, he has been making music in the company of birds, considering them not as colourful background performers but as active collaborators in composition.

"Playing with birds, rather than merely thinking about birds, I begin to feel what it is like to be a bird. I do not look for proof but only possibility, and hope for new ways to interact, new sounds to surprise. Wild things."

The result, according to Rothenberg, is nothing less than a unique "inter-species interaction." He goes one step further and suggests that birds might reciprocate these feelings: "Those people, they don't just cage us and feed us and listen to us - maybe they're ready to learn from us too."

Rothenberg is particularly enchanted by the extremely complex song of the nightingale. He hopes that one day, by using a combination of musical and biological approaches - art and science - he will come closer to understanding and perhaps even to deciphering it.

I had the opportunity to meet with Rothenberg in a cafe in Berlin. When I asked him what was special about making music with birds, he said: "One is playing with a creature who only has music, not language, so perhaps their music means far more to them than it could ever mean to us. And one dares to try to communicate across species lines, using the very logic and emotion of life itself, the emotional shapes and forms that evolution has provided millions of years before humans ever appeared on this planet. It's a sobering thought."

Rothenberg was not the first person to play music with birds, or at least to assume that this was what he was doing. In the 1920s, a British cellist named Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) developed the charming habit of going out into her large garden in Surrey in south-east England in the spring to practise playing music.

"As the nights began to feel warmer I had a sudden longing to go out into the woods surrounding the garden and play my cello and gaze on the beauty of it all as the moon peeped out through the trees. I sat on an old seat which surrounded an ivy-clad tree. I began to play, very lazily, all the melodies I loved best and to improvise on them. I began the Chant Hindou by Rimsky-Korsakov and after playing for some time I stopped. Suddenly a glorious note echoed the notes of the cello.

"I then trilled up and down this instrument, up to the top and down again: the voice of the bird followed me in thirds! I had never heard such a bird's song before - to me it seemed a miracle. The sound did not appear to come from the high treetops but from nearer the ground; I could not see, I just played on and on."

After hearing the nightingale joining in and responding with trills of its own, Harrison proposed performing this "collaborative" performance live on the radio. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) accepted her offer with alacrity. The technical challenges were considerable, as whole truckloads of equipment had to be delivered.

She played on May 19, 1924, a warm, clear, moonlit night - sitting on a stone bench next to the bush where the bird was perched - to several million listeners. For a long time, the bird did not join in, and the radio program was coming to an end (almost two hours had passed by then) when suddenly, after Harrison had begun Antonin Dvorak's Songs My Mother Taught Me, the nightingale sang - or at least reacted.

The audience's response was overwhelming. The BBC had pulled off a coup, and news of the performance spread around the globe. Thanks to their great success, the concerts were repeated every spring for the next 12 years.

In 1942, the BBC planned a live broadcast of the nightingale singing alone, but as they set up their equipment, British bombers began to fly overhead on their way to Europe. The engineers realised a live broadcast would compromise the military operation, so they recorded the session instead - capturing the sounds of 197 Wellington and Lancaster bombers flying out on a raid over Mannheim, and the sounds of 11 fewer planes returning as the nightingale sang on into the night.

To this day, there are doubts about the interactions between the musician and the bird. Was it pure fantasy to think that the bird was singing in response to the sound of the cello? Perhaps the whole thing was nothing more than a charming coincidence.

Extract from Birdmania - A Remarkable Passion for Birds, by Bernd Brunner, is published by Allen and Unwin at $34.99.

This story What we can learn about ourselves by listening to birdsong first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.