As a child I remember my mum telling me a story about a bird that forgot its song and it had made me wonder how silent nature would be if birds ever happen to lose their ability to sing. Birdsong is one of the most soothing sounds of nature. Since most of us have grown up listening to birds sing, our mind automatically perceives the melody as reassuring and safe, and author Julian Treasure of the book titled Sound Business, who believes birdsong relaxes the body and stimulates the mind feels people should be concerned when birds stop singing.
Earlier this year a worrisome report was published in the journal – Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a study regarding the regent honeyeater, a critically endangered species. In the study it was noted that owing to their dwindling numbers, a few male birds of this species of songbirds were found to be in danger of losing their song since this seriously impede them from listening to their ancestors or other birds of their species, sing. To imagine a world devoid of birdsong is a frightful prospect not only for people like me who wake up early just to listen to natures music. Birdsong is an integral part of the human psyche.
People closely relate to the melody of birdsongs and respond in many different ways depending upon their association with the bird species. While a certain bird call can remind someone of their carefree childhood days or a visit to a particular wildlife park where they sighted the lifer and heard it sing for the first time – it can also have deeper cultural implications, one that stirs the human soul. Folklore passed down to an individual by family elders can leave an indelible mark upon the mind regarding how they perceive the bird’s song. As a result of this perception one can feel a range of emotions when one hears a familiar bird sing.
For instance the way the British perceive the robin, dates back many centuries to a tale about how the little bird, then brown in colour, helped baby Jesus stay warm. As the bird fanned a dying fire with its wings to keep the flames alive, its breast got scorched and turned red. As a result of this selfless act the coming generations began to associate the robin and its presence with happiness, peace and sacrifice. On the other hand the Romans dreaded the hoots of owls and considered it to be a sign of death after an owl had supposedly foretold the death of emperors Julius Caesar and Augustus. However, the same bird is regarded as a symbol of wisdom and luck in some other cultures, including Hindu mythology where it’s the vehicle of goddess Lakshmi.
The relationship between the arrival of the pied cuckoo and the onset of the monsoon season in the subcontinent is well known as farmers’ delight when they hear this bird call. And thanks to the the popular fairy tale titled, ‘The Nightingale’ by Hans Christian Andersen, in which the nightingale’s song saves the emperor from imminent death, the nightingale’s song is regarded as pleasing and rejuvenative.
The outcome of a bird’s song on the human mind also depends upon the kind of bird. While musical and melodious calls are found to be soothing, loud and raucous calls can be annoying. When it comes to how birds produce their song, it’s interesting to note that the melodious birdsong is highly structured unlike the short and less rhythmic bird call. Birds can produce two notes at once and it’s also fascinating how birds alter their singing to impress mates. Ornithologists observed a distinct change in the male white-throated sparrow’s song a few decades ago and it was found to develop a new tune and change its beat. Few years down the line, the new song caught on with the younger males of the species when these birds flew to newer territories, making the new version hugely popular.
Just like with humans, noise too impacts birds singing. Birds are known to adjusts their pitch to overcome traffic noise and other background sound, so when the noise levels dropped during the pandemic, a study suggested that birds too changed their vocal repertoire. An article published in Forbes reporting the findings of researchers from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville studying the impact of noise on birdsong revealed interesting facts. According to the report, the white-crowned sparrows were found to sing at a lower-amplitude and with a distinct improvement in the quality of their singing, as they no longer had to compete with traffic noise and sang more softly.
Birds sing for various reasons, but the main purpose of a bird’s song is to define territory and to attract a mate, which is why it doesn’t come as a surprise that most singing is done by the male of the species. This disparity is more evident in the temperate zones, while in the tropics one can find female birds as vocal as the male, with some even duetting. Regardless of who sings and for what reason, the loss of birdsong can be fatal for a species like it’s proving to be with the regent honeyeater, making it difficult for these birds to find a mate.
For humans the mellifluous birdsongs are well documented to have multiple health benefits from boosting wellbeing, reducing stress and helping people rejuvenate by restoring their focus and attention. No wonder Schiphol Airport of Amsterdam plays birdsong in their lounge to help travellers relax. Birdsongs connect us with nature and give us a welcome break from urban trappings. And for me, birdsong is nature’s heartbeat.