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Conversations with Birds
The Metaphysics of Bird and Human Communication
Table of Contents
About The Book
An exploration of communicating with birds and the lessons they can teach us
• Discusses specific birdtalk techniques and offers insights into many species
• Looks at the long-standing tradition of “avitherapy” throughout history and in literature and the arts
• Explains how song-talk with birds restores peace, calms anxiety, and enhances health
For decades Alan Powers has studied bird vocalizations, developing the remarkable ability to imitate birds’ songs and get them to respond and even change tunes. Through his years of study, he has discovered that birds can teach us important lessons about the world and about ourselves. As Powers explains, by communing cross-species we reach out to the timeless interconnected web of all life past and present--what Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno called in Latin the Uni-versus, the “Whole turned into One.”
Sharing his journey to learn birdtalk and his profound observations about the poetic, spiritual, and healing influences of birdsong, Powers explores the ancient language of birds and the depth of meaning birds convey. He explains how bird speech sounds like song to us, but birdtalk is urgent and nuanced, whether about predators or the weather. He details how he began learning birdtalk, listening to one bird each summer, learning their many vocalizations and variations. Discussing specific techniques, he shares insights into the birdtalk of many species, including the complex and intelligent speech of Crows, the emotional depths of Loons, the mimicry of Blue Jays, and the beautiful song of the Wood Thrush.
Exploring the intertwined metaphysics of bird and human languages, Powers looks at the long-standing tradition of “avitherapy” throughout history, literature, and the arts. He shares insights into birds from Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, reveals how birds appear in love songs throughout the world, and examines how famous writers such as Keats, Catullus, St. Francis of Assisi, and the French historian Jules Michelet found that talking to birds improved their state of mind. He also explores how song-talk with birds restores peace, calms anxiety, and enhances health.
Take your palm and tap four beats steadily on something in front of you—a table, a book, a PalmPilot. This morning, early, I heard a call note in that rhythm, three notes and a half-beat delay on the fourth, a descending minor third. Deep, deep, deepuh dee. (The uh is a musical rest, silent.) I don’t know which bird it is, and I’m in bed at 5 a.m., unwilling to find out. Though I learn some dozen new songs a year—all for the same bird—there are thousands of songs I don’t yet know. These occur in my own region, to say nothing about a province away. Like all language learning, I immerse myself in the unfamiliar until over the months and years it becomes familiar.
I have declared this the year of the Oriole. (Sounds like the desperate optimism of a baseball fan, but no.) Orioles make a plaintive call note, a falling half-tone glissando. I believe they also make it on the wing, like Robins’ staccato patter taking off. A few years back I pulled a St. Francis and tried to teach the birds. Recall that St. Francis of Assisi’s peculiar gift was not listening to birds but “preaching”—the word used in the early accounts—to them. Professionals easily credit this story. Anyone who preaches or even teaches can believe that the birds make as attentive listeners as most parishioners or college sophomores.
This Oriole year I gave up trying to teach them a famous symphonic riff. (Stay tuned.) I just listen, and if they are far enough away, I echo them. You must be careful if they’re close. An echo at close distance chases them off. Probably half of all birdtalk, like people on cell phones, is locative. “I’m here. Where are you?” Some birdcalls function as simple greetings, others as choral matins, telephones, road signs and roadways, flight paths, roadside route numbers, vegetable-stand signs. At the same time they can be stylish vehicles—elegant dress or ceremonial robes—performed to impress. Season dictates much. Spring call notes roughly translate, “Get out of my tree!” They just say it with much more style. “Yo! Flee the tree, see?” But on a cool fall morning, the Cardinal’s quick-rising, whip-like call note finds a distant answer. Is it his broodmate? His colleague? His son? Will one of them migrate, or did they both inherit nonmigrating genes?
Back to the summer Oriole, who hits a plaintive call note. He follows it with a cheery song, the rhythm of “Gaudeamus igitur” (the college Latin drinking song). The melody is a major triad starting on the second note. Inexplicably, the great nineteenth-century American “birdear”—pun intended—Simeon Cheney, in his enthusiasm, demurs about his song, calling the Oriole “hardly a songster.”
He is the most beautiful of our spring visitors, has a rich and powerful voice, the rarest skill in nest-building, and is among the happiest, most jubilant birds. Hardly a songster, the oriole is rather a tuneful caller, a musical shouter. (Cheney 1892, 72)
Cheney does not appear to have read Thoreau’s journal encounter with the “ones that Midas touched,” nor to have heard the Warbler-like chatter I describe a page farther on.
I don’t know how he did it, Giovanni di Bernadone (St. Francis, to you). He seems to have engaged them somehow, spoken to them. I tried this once—with Orioles, too. I noticed one who made three short notes and then two glisses a minor third lower. To hint at what I tried to teach him, the first three notes sounded like the first notes of Beethoven’s most famous theme, starting his Fifth Symphony. The only hitch was the fourth note glissandoed down a half step. And the Oriole’s fifth note repeated that gliss exactly. I figured I could use the bird’s tonal flexibility and whistle the fifth note a half step plus a quarter tone higher. Bigawd, the bird did it! I had “preached”—what, music practicum, I suppose—to a bird. His four notes sounded almost exactly like the first four of Beethoven, except his glissando on the fourth, down from the minor third to the major. And, truth to tell, the fifth note was a quarter tone lower than Beethoven, but “close enough for union work,” as musicians say. I repeated my “prompt,” and he repeated his sluicy Beethoven. About three times. But having succeeded with the one note, of course I advanced to the descending fifth with which Ludwig concludes his phrase. And I heard . . . I heard . . . nothing. I tried it again. Nothing again. That last blew his mind, or it blew my cover as an ersatz Oriole. At any rate, the Oriole could not conceive or perform such a note in such a sequence. It was uncanonical, outré, a gaffe, a breach, a solecism if not a faux pas. I may have sounded to him like an overbearing megalomaniac crazy to close the conversation, for after all, who was he talking to? Beethoven, not me. That eclipse of a composer.
I should add that the Oriole’s instinct was very like the German composer’s. That descending fifth interval comes much later in the symphony. Beethoven, like the Oriole, makes a long series of dih-dih-dih dahs in different keys before he gets to the descending fifth.
Perhaps less than one-fifth of all birdsong is imitable by humans. Although I write about that one-fifth, I do not forget the vast ranges of inimitable birdsong: almost all songs by Blackbirds, Warblers, Finches, scavenging shorebirds, Hawks and Kestrels, even Wrens. And hundreds of varieties besides. Even among the imitable birds, there are often inaccessible languages. Partly this is a matter of higher frequency than most humans— at least, than I—can whistle. For instance, Orioles have a whole other language they shift into after they have given their “dial tones,” or series of them. Their second language sounds high pitched, like a Warbler or Swallow or Red-winged Blackbird, though it lacks the overtones of the latter. This second, Oriole-to-Oriole “specielect” must be what Thoreau witnesses in his Journals, where he calls these birds “Golden Robins” (or because of their nests, “Hangbirds”). Thoreau records, “May 8, 1852 Two golden robins; they chatter like blackbirds; the fire bursts forth on their backs when they lift their wings” (Allen 1993, 287).
It’s difficult to know what birds are saying, though something can be gleaned by context. Admittedly, an observer’s preoccupation colors interpretation. My friend, a father of nine, thought that the summer birds near my house were asking me to feed them; I agreed that they were discussing food indirectly, by staking their territorial claims. Emily Dickinson in one poem goes so far as to “hear” moral values from a Robin. The Mourning Dove gets its name from the mournful affect of its song for us humans, whereas it may be singing of pure joy, “like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth,” as Shakespeare says in his Sonnet 38.
The first time I really held an extended back-and-forth bird conversation—echoic, granted—was with a very aggressive Titmouse. Probably because of the demands of specialized feeding and population density, Titmice are among the most aggressive local birds, so you can appear to “call” them simply by reiterating their call note. It’s a descending minor third, repeated usually three times. Return this call insistently and a Titmouse is sure to appear on the tree above you. When he does, you will know that what you said—essentially, “Get out of my tree”—is exactly what he was saying.
Birdtalk tells us much about our own human speech. Our greetings, for instance, share something of birds’ call notes. Think of a host’s greeting at a toney party, say, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels of the roaring twenties. “How d’yi do?” is a greeting, yes, a welcome. But it’s also a territorial warning. Whose turf are you on? The host’s. What is the “territory” of a human call note? It’s a vast social network. Where are you in this network? If one considers the implications, an introduction, in that old, static society, was a crisis. Best get out one’s clearest whistle and pipe a repeated minor third, like the Titmouse.
- Publisher: Bear & Company (February 21, 2023)
- Length: 192 pages
- ISBN13: 9781591434528
Raves and Reviews
“The strength of Alan Powers’s own connection to the world of the natural is never in doubt, and the wild birds he sees and hears inspire him not only as a writer but also as a critic and a musician. His discussions of poetic and dramatic texts by Keats, Shakespeare, and especially Dickinson are fresh and enlightening. What the essays, anecdotes, musical citations, and literary musings all share is the conviction that ‘birdtalk’--the habit of conscious observation and reflection on the connection between the human and natural worlds--can save us from the frenzies of life in the age of technology. There is no sentiment, no pathos in the lesson. Powers does not force it on us but rather offers it here for us to take to heart if we choose, but I cannot imagine the reader of this heterodox and delightful book who turns from it unmoved.”
– Rick Wright, author of Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America
“Conversations with Birds is a wonderful book filled with great insight into the nature of birdsong and our own birdlike inclinations. Many bird books seem too dry and scientific, but the musician and poet come out strong in Alan Powers and speak vividly and in a way that appeals to the artistic type. It is obvious that Powers is a poet and a lover of poetry. I really enjoyed the chapter on literary birds. I read this book like a devotional-- mostly reading it in the morning with coffee while watching and listening to the birds at the feeders in my backyard. Thank you for a joyful and inspiring book! I’m going to promote this book among all the other bird-loving rockers and poets I know.”
– Jerry Oliver, singer-songwriter, indie rocker, and creator of the Birdwatcher Experiment
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- Book Cover Image (jpg): Conversations with Birds 2nd Edition, New Edition of BirdTalk eBook 9781591434528
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