The Ancient Song of Reptiles

Nederlandsblackbird drinking© Lodewijk Muns 2018

The blackbird in our backyard is an obsessive singer. Starting with an hour long aubade at 5 a.m., he punctuates the day with recitals at irregular intervals.

As much as I enjoy waking up with nature’s music, there is something annoying about his performances. It is his repetition of a small number of stock phrases, and one in particular.

Of his three most frequent phrases, one contains four pitches that almost perfectly fit into the musical “major” scale (two ascending fourths, sol do la re). The second, somewhat less obvious, sounds a bit like the beginning of the Mexican song La cucaracha (sol do mi, usually twice, as in the song).

But it is the third that tends to get a little on my nerves. It contains a rising antecedent (in musical terms), followed by consequent that glides down. It regularly recurs after a number of less typical phrases, and stands out by this downward (“confirming”) conclusion. Most other phrases end with an upward turn, in a vaguely questioning manner. In my imagination it has become associated with the French words tapis ridicule, pronounced with a long American “bunched” r. Ridiculous carpet, exclaimed with a hint of mockery.

Blackbird and neighbourhood noises. Starting with “sol-do-la-re”, followed by “tapis ridicule” (00:08), which is repeated at the end. Variation on “La cucaracha” at 00:28.

As is usual with blackbirds, a cleanly whistled motif is often followed by noisy twittering, that may repeat the rhythm and contour of that motif. Hearing this in the open air, it is amazing how the spatial quality changes: while the pure tones are sharply localized, coming from the nearby tree, this percussive coda seems to be scattered through space in an untraceable manner. Maybe that exactly is its function – to enhance the bird’s presence. My poor telephone recording, of course, does not convey that.

I must confess that part of my annoyance with this motif is caused by my own tendency to associate it with those words, tapis – rrridicule.

Finding words, or quasiwords, to “transcribe” birdsong is common practice among bird watchers. In my birding guide the blackbird’s various alarm calls are transcribed as pock, srrree, chack-ack-ack-ack, and plee-plee-plee-plee-plee. As is well known, some birds owe their popular names to onomatopoeia: cuckoo, peewit, chiffchaff. The step from sound words to actual words is sometimes made as a joke. According to tradition, the great horned owl screams Are you awake? me too; the brown thrasher calls Drop it, drop it, pick it up, pick it up; and the white-eyed vireo Spit and see if I care, spit!

These popular “transcription” practices point toward certain regularities in the way we perceive the sounds of speech, particularly vowels and semivowels. We tend to hear these as higher and lower, on a scale from ee through ay–ah–oh to oo. Despite the fact that we may articulate a vowel on any pitch in our range: the vowel “scale” is not determined by pitch, but by colour, or timbre, controlled by the shape we give to the vocal tract. Thanks to the colour of its vowels and semivowels, the nonsensical expression tapis ridicule matches the bird’s intonation rather closely. Much closer anyway than would be possible with a musical staff notation. Admittedly, nothing justifies the t and p of tapis; I just needed a word with ah-ee.

“Tapis ridicule”, in three different instances.

Birdsong, Speech, and Language

spectrogram
Tapis ridicule (nr. 2 in the recording above), spectrogram

There are different, more scientific and accurate ways to transcribe bird sounds. Ornithologists usually study birdsong through spectrograms, rather than by ear. Even though they create a link between language and birdsong, birdwatchers’ phonological imitations seem to play no role in the research on birdsong and human language, which is a rather lively branch of biology. Continue reading …