Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Voice of the Farm

From Birds & People by Mark Cocker, available from Amazon (via way of Futility Closet) comes this little gem:
I was in the Outer Hebrides and I came across an abandoned derelict croft. It had no roof, but very substantial walls and in the gaps between the stonework was a starlings’ nest. I could hear the birds inside, and eventually one of the starlings came to defend its territory. I heard straight away that it wasn’t just the usual rambling song. It started to mimic a Corncrake, a species that is very rare in mainland Britain. It did this bird’s buzzing repetitive song, but then it immediately went into other sounds that seemed familiar and had a strong rhythm to them. As I was listening I was looking around and could see the remnants of farm machinery, including an ancient tractor that had not moved for 20-30 years. I realized this bird was singing the song of some of this machinery. It was singing the song of a mechanical pump that had obviously been active around this farm, and used by the people who had lived here.

I wasn’t listening to the same starling that heard these original sounds. These copied sounds are usually passed on from parents or neighboring birds so that a young bird absorbs and then duplicates them. The strange thing was that I was recording the sounds in what had been somebody’s living room, a place that had obviously been full of the conversations of family life over generations and which had passed into history. Yet the birds had returned and taken it back — claimed this space and these rocks — and were singing their own song. And they were singing the songs that were around when the people were here.

Read a review of the book here.

The mimicry of starlings is rather famous, and Mozart had a pet bird that did classical tunes.

As I noted in a post back in 2009,

Believe it or not, the more than 200 million European Starlings found in North America
today are direct descendants of approximately 100 birds introduced into New York City's Central Park sometime in the early 1890s.

Sturnus vulgaris owes its presence in this hemisphere to an odd little New York City group called the "American Acclimatization Society" which was dedicated to introducing all of the birds mentioned in William Shakespeare's works into Central Park. Previous attempts to introduce Starlings in the Northeast, Midwest and on the West Coast had failed, but the 1890 release was spectacularly successful, as today's massive winter flocks attest.


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