September 13, 2016

Smitten by the mockingbird!

Thinking back on my 6-week trip to the US during June-July 2016, I realise that it is moments of discovery, mostly of the natural world, that formed the high points of my trip.

We were in San Diego, with Vijay's cousin and were about to leave on a road trip to San Francisco in the morning, when I heard a bird song from their backyard. I ran to see if I could spot the bird. I did spot it and then followed the most amazing conversation between this bird and its mate on another tree close by! The song was not monotonous like that of other birds...these birds made all kinds of sounds! I excitedly called Vijay and asked him to listen. I had no idea what the bird was, and was later told that it was a mockingbird!

For people living in the US, it may be common, but for me it was novel. Apart from the title of Harper Lee's book, I never really thought of the mockingbird or read about it. Yes, on an earlier trip, at Three Sisters Island near Niagara Falls, I did hear a bird sound like a the tring-tring of the telephone. I was fascinated but had not explored further. Maybe it had been the mockingbird!

The mockingbird is not very attractive - small and grey, with long legs and a tail. Males and females look alike. BUT this is what it sounds like. Just listen to it!

I opened a book I own titled, "Why birds sing" by David Rothenberg and found a whole chapter - 'Listen with the mockingbird'.

This para, among many others, captures the essence of this bird:

"The real bird imitates all in his path, with clear and graspable rhythms. Evenly paced clicks. A break. The same thing sung higher and faster, faster, then a quip, a turnaround, a stop. Space. Another melody, a game played with that. Rules you think you almost catch - twists you don't expect, like a fine jazz solo. It's all alone, at the edge of the field. He's got his territory, he's looking for his mate. Then he finds her. Then he doesn't stop. He keeps on singing. Singing on when there's no more need. If it's taunting anyone, it must be us - Fool, you think you can explain me! You think I tease you with my abilities? I sing the song of the world, the recombination of all that I hear. Listen in and listen good".

They sing to woo their mate. And they sing as they mate, the song of the male lasting far longer than the actual mating! "Shall we respect the song as an end in itself?" asked Rothenberg.

Then there's this delightful para: "What happens when he imitates clocks, car alarms, and barking dogs? He cannot use the same method to make those sounds as their sources do, but he does translate those sounds into new challenges for the syrinx (voice organ of birds). Why, why, why does he go on in threes, fours, and sixes? Ask him that. Ask him that. Ask him that. That that that. Ask Ask Ask."


Rothenberg apparently asked Partha Mitra, who works on sound comparison software and on rules of communication that govern the brain, "Do you think a detailed notation of this mockingbird music will help us make sense of it?"

"Listen", Partha said, "Indian music has gotten by without notation for thousands of years, and it is deeply complex. I think the mockingbird is much closer to improvisation than written composition."

Since we live in this amazing virtual world where one thing leads to another, I browsed around and chanced upon this song composed by Septimus Winner, composer of several of 19th century's most popular songs, and who published under the pseudonym Alice Hawthorne. His biggest hit of all was "Listen to the mockingbird", which spread faster than any song of its day. It actually sounds like the song of the mockingbird!

I'm dreaming now of Hally
Sweet Hally, sweet Hally
I'm dreaming now of Hally
For the tho't of her is one that never dies;

She's sleeping in the valley,
In the valley, in the valley,
She's sleeping in the valley
And the mocking bird is singing where she lies.
Listen to the mocking bird
Listen to the mocking bird...

So goes the song.
Listen to it here by Dolly Parton and Stuart Duncan and here by Brother Bones and his Shadows and here by Louis Armstrong.

As for me, I am truly smitten by the mockingbird!

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