Sunday, April 17, 2011

Listening to robins (May 6, 2007)

One of my favorite things to do when I just want to lie back and relax is to listen to the sounds of robins. They don't sing; they talk.

I've been listening to them for years. There is unquestionably an intelligent language going on amidst all that apparent twitter. There are individual letters, individual words, sets of words in phrases, longer structures analogous to sentences, and beyond that, sets of sentences analogous to paragraphs.

Being able to understand all these sounds is not my goal. I doubt I will ever compile a glossary of robin vocabulary, nor write the Warriner's handbook or a Noam Chomsky dissertation on grammar and the deep structure of their language, though I did study transformational grammar in college. No, I am simply content to listen, and know that some sort of communication is going on.

What made me listen to birds, and this particular species? It was a warm summer evening, and a robin was on the wire going to the pole in front of the house. I noted that it uttered an introductory sound, followed by eleven short, identical chirps. This was immediately followed by the same introductory sound, followed by ten short, identical chirps. This in turn was followed by the same sequence, but with nine. Then again with eight. Then seven. Then six. Then five. Then it flew to a nearby tree and began all over again with eleven. When again it had wound down to five, it flew to a different part of the yard and started all over again with eleven.

Clearly this was not random. There was purpose in it, a plan, a pattern. I have also seen and heard it done in other yards. Surely all other species do something similar, but the robin has such an immediately recognizable, and wholly distinguishable, set of sound patterns, it is difficult not to notice it when present. Its noises in the evening are often similar, but altogether different from those around sunrise, and again different from those at high noon, all of which tend to be quite predictable, or at least in context. I rarely hear a robin's sunrise song at sunset.

In this regard they are like people. A lot of human speech is predictable, or at least predictable at certain times of day. You don't say "Good night" to someone at 10:30 in the morning, nor "What's on your agenda for the day?" at 3:45 in the afternoon at the office.

I do wonder what they talk about, though I stopped wondering what it must feel like to be a bird when I was still very much a child. I liken some of the discussion to listening to a short-wave radio tuned to a foreign station with a language I do not understand. Listening long enough, I hear patterns, and can guess what the top-of-the-hour newscast might be about, but really make no sense of it all. Still, it's intriguing to know there's a rhythm and a rule set at work with each, and that it makes sense to somebody. I never aspired to be a cryptographer, but the idea is not beyond my ability to comprehend.

It would be helpful to know what some of this non-random noise is. The sounds robins make when a cat can be seen skulking through the yard has a specific sequence, not altogether different from what is heard when a storm is imminent, and again not altogether different from being disturbed by a branch breaking. All are similar, but differ in some aspects. Knowing what those sounds are can make being outside a little more familiar to us building dwellers.

I ride a lot of buses, and consequently spend a lot of time either walking along the road, or waiting at a bus stop. It is natural to notice a lot more of nature than the average car-entrapped suburbanite. Although I am no expert, I can recognize several species of birds on sight.

So why do this? It's just one of those nice little aspects of life that make me appreciate nature, and life in general, from the point of view of a mere earthen creature, not as a human, nor a citizen, nor any human concept. I'm just here, and one of them, as are we all.

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