Battle of the Songbirds
"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.
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...