"If a bird is a really crummy singer, he shouldn't even bother trying the same song type everyone is singing, because he will get matched and shown as a loser."


So says David Logue, an ornithologist at the University of Lethridge in Alberta, in a New Scientist report on his work - American Naturalist DOI: 10.1086/587849, for those who must know - showing that male songbirds try to out-sing each other to attract females. The article also tells us that Sandra Vehrencamp, an ornithologist at Cornell, first proposed that birdsongs are a form of aggression: males size up their rivals' tunes. But - "the new model might not apply to all songbirds, she says. Her team recently tested three pre-recorded versions of a banded wren tune: 'a normal song, a wimpy song, and super-strong song,' she says. The songs only varied in the amount of trill, which is a marker for quality. Few birds copied the strong or wimpy songs, while the average song drew imitators – and aggression."
(I'm trying very hard to resist drawing any analogies between this and behavior in the poetry world.)
As it happens, a poem by Marianne Boruch in the June issue of Poetry coincides with the publication of that research, and puts things in a rather different perspective:
Birdsong, face it, some male machine
gone addled—repeat, repeat—the damage
keeps doing, the world ending then starting,
the first word the last, etc. It's that
etcetera. How to love. Is a wire
just loose? Build an ear for that. Fewer, they say.
So many fewer, by far. He's showing off
to call her back. Or claiming the tree.
Or a complaint—the food around here,
the ants, the moths, the berries. She's making
the nest, or both are. In feathers, in hair or twigs,
in rootlets and tin foil. Shiny bits seen
from a distance, a mistake. But fate
has reasons to dress up. Stupid
and dazzling have a place, a place, a place
though never. She can't sing it.

In case you were wondering, that's a "Male Superb Lyrebird" in the photo above.

Originally Published: May 28th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. May 28, 2008
     Vivek Narayanan

    Yes, isn't it strange how, in the poetry world, it's the strong or the wimpy, not the average, that invites aggression? Does this reflect a lack of sex?

  2. May 29, 2008
     Henry Gould

    Does this knowledge - that rivalry, aggression, & acquisitive ambition drive birds (& poets) to sing - really dispel the mystery of song? Give us a leg up, put us "in the know"? Or does it just make us feel more sophisticated, disillusioned?
    The question remains : why is song itself of such paramount value (such that all kinds of creatures - birds, fish, humans... - pursue it with such fervor)?
    Harmony is enchantment.... no one knows why.

  3. May 29, 2008
     Marty Elwell

    Schopenhauer on this topic (The World as Will and Representation, I):
    In this state pure knowing comes to us, as it were, in order to deliver us from willing and its pressures. We follow, but only for a few moments; willing, desire, the recollection of our own personal aims, always tears us away again from peaceful contemplation; but again and again the next beautiful surroundings, in which pure, will-less knowledge presents itself to us, entice us away from willing. Therefore, in the song and in the lyrical mood, willings (the personal interest of our aims) and pure perception of the surroundings that present themselves are wonderfully blended with each other. Relations between the two are sought and imagined; the subjective mood, the affection of the will, imparts its colour to the perceived environment, and the environment imparts its own to the mood. The genuine song is the copy or impression of the whole of this mingled and divided state of mind.

  4. May 31, 2008
     Zachariah Wells

    Interesting choice of birds for illustration, the lyrebird being known for its pitch-perfect mimicry of other sounds: hardly an avant-garde avis!