Listen! Do you want to know a secret…


Yesterday I talked a little about the world of noise going on in the times we think of as ‘quiet’, with quiet defined purely as ‘no human-made noise’. But what is all this extra noise for?

“Why do birds sing?” is a question that occupies hundreds, thousands of books and articles, both populist and scientific.

A romantic and anthropocentric point of view that has been held at times throughout history is that it’s for us, that a god or gods created everything for our benefit, and therefore birdsong is just beautiful sound as background and inspiration. We will come back to this idea in a minute, but essentially it’s one we can reject. Nature does little for the benefit of other species, and any sounds we here have meaning to the individual. Very few, theist or otherwise, believe this anymore.

For a long time any animal noise was seen as the most basic form of communication, barely worthy of the word, and certainly nothing approaching language. Noises could easily be bracketed into a few small categories. “Alarm”, “Attraction”, “Contact”, “Food”. Nothing more.

SONY DSCBut throughout the twentieth century a growing body of research started to expand on this, to really truly study the ways animals communicate and what that meant. What has been discovered is that it is a far more sophisticated world that we realised.

Yes, birdsong is ultimately about demonstrating you are fit and ready to breed. But the song is not just repetitive. It contains complexities, it contains dialect, it contains mimicry, it contains call-and-response. It evolves over the animal’s lifetime. The bird learns, it practices, it gets better. It introduces and disposes of elements. In other words, it analyses it’s own performance. This doesn’t occur in any way we would easily relate to, but nonetheless it must occur.

Animal calls, such as alarm calls, are more complex too. Analysis of the apparently simple ‘bark’ of the prairie dog has shown that it doesn’t in fact have the one alarm call. It has one for every species that is a threat. So what sounds like a simple bark to our limited range actually contains subtle distinctions for ‘coyote’, ‘wolf’, ‘snake’, ‘eagle’ and so on. This also means every individual must be able to recognise the different threat, know the appropriate call, and make it*. Young animals have to learn that, they cannot be born with it.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If you have one call for ‘threat’, and start scanning the horizon for wolves, you may miss the eagle diving in. An evolved behavioural response distinguishes where the threat comes from, and gives you an advantage.

????????The more we study animals, the more we learn how much more complex they are. For centuries it was thought that any suggestion animals behaviour and ours could be compared was anthropomorphism, poor science. Only humans had sophisticated behaviour, animals were just animals. Happily, we increasingly see complexity for what it is, not an illusion based on the observer, but genuinely distinctive signs of complex social intelligence.

As a final note, I said I’d return to birdsong being for our benefit. Now, while birdsong exists for its own purpose, psychological research is showing that hearing birdsong has a benefit for our wellbeing. It also stimulates creativity (this is no shock given the wealth of music drawn from birdsong).

So when I suggest you get somewhere ‘quiet’ and listen for the sounds around you, it’s not just a technical recommendation. It’s genuinely for your own good!



* An intriguing addendum to this incidentally is that some prairie dogs will use an alarm call to scatter their friends, making it easier for them to access food sources. The implications of that sort of behaviour in terms of developmental intelligence are pretty impressive, because you have to be able to think from the point of view of another.

This entry was posted in Amphibians, Biology, Birds, Ethology, Green exercise, Invertebrates, Why watch wildlife? and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Listen! Do you want to know a secret…

  1. Pingback: “See you otter? Stick this!” – Accents in animals | Why watch wildlife?

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