Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/January 1887/The Voices of Animals



THE whole world is one wondrous blending of the most varied voices, flowing together and intermingling. This unison of sound forms the great tone of life on our globe, and chimes in harmoniously with the poets' and philosophers' music of the spheres. The existence of such a music is not to be denied, even from a purely realistic point of view. If from a distance one were to listen to the thousand noises and sounds of all kinds that arise from the throbbing of life in a large town, these all would seemingly be lost in one low hum resembling the vibrations of a huge tuning-fork, and appearing as but a single tone. Even thus the entire volume of sound coming from our planet would seem as a single tone to one soaring far above the earth, and capable of hearing through vast distances. Similar sounds would arise from other worlds and thus would be produced a veritable music of the spheres, sounding on into the infinite.

Bernardin de St. Pierre has written a very curious book on the harmonies of Nature. Palissy has made numerous ingenious observations on the melodies of plants and trees, which Lamartine, through his book on "Great Men," has rescued from oblivion.

It is a well-known fact that every metal has a sound peculiar to itself. So, too, the voices of animals have at all times played an important part in Nature—now looked upon by man with superstitious awe, and anon observed with the eye of Science.

In olden times the priests and the tillers of the soil were the ones to pay attention to the voices of animals—the priests, to be guided by them in their oracles; the peasants, to learn of changes in the weather and coming storms. It seems rather strange that the observation and the understanding of the voices of animals have become more and more of a lost art with the advance of civilization, so called; and it appears almost an anomaly that in these times a scholar like M. Louis Nicolardot, of Paris, should turn his attention, with all the thoroughness of science, yet in a most charming and entertaining manner, to a study of the voices of Nature. He has done this in a work entitled "La Fontaine and the Human Comedy."

La Fontaine endows Nature with the voice of man, to mirror the manners, the faults, and the vices of mankind. Nicolardot, however, has traced the true and real significance of the voices of Nature, and shows—at times in a surprising manner—that these voices of Nature often express more and bear a deeper meaning than even the fancy of the great fable-writers, from Æsop down to La Fontaine, has ascribed to them. It is very interesting to study more particularly the animal world with reference to its various voices, and to follow out the meaning of these voices in the great concert of Nature. As Nicolardot has ascertained, there is more dumbness in the animal world than is generally supposed. This dumbness, however, is rarely absolute, but rather more an inability to form articulated sounds.

Every animal of the higher orders is possessed of some sort of tone expressive of pain or joy, and by means of this it can make itself understood by its kind. Fish can produce no sound in the water, because air is lacking as a medium to propagate the waves of sound; and yet we incline to the belief that the water itself may admit of the forming of some kind of sound-waves, which the fish perhaps may be capable of exciting, and which will be experienced and comprehended by other fish. As far as we are concerned, of course, fish will remain mute, as the element in which they live is one into whose conditions of existence we may never enter, and that to us means death. But even among our domestic animals, the dog heading the list, there reigns, to our ear at least, a dumbness well-nigh absolute, broken only occasionally by faint and forcibly uttered sounds. In very cold and in very hot climates there are certain dog races that never bark, a fact already referred to by Captain Cook in the account of his voyages. In Asia there is a species of dog called colsuns which never barks. It is to be found chiefly in the Deccan, in the mountains of Nilgiri and in the woodlands on the coast of Coromandel. Also among the birds, by poets so often styled "the singers of the forest," there are many kinds that are mute. Two varieties of sparrows, the tangara of Brazil and the senegali at the Senegal, are said never to emit a sound; and in Australia there are larks quite similar to those of our own country, but which never sing.

The real singing of birds is done only in spring-time, to greet anew Nature's awakening. During the rest of the year even the best singers of the woods confine themselves to simple chirping notes of woe or joy. Nicolardot believes that the song of birds may be regarded as the original fount of all music, and according to his view each musical instrument was originally only devised to imitate the voice of some bird. Bringing to bear a considerable knowledge of natural history and perhaps an equal amount of charming fancy, he traces the whole orchestra of to-day back to the voices of birds. He demonstrates that for every instrument—the clarionet, the flute, the oboe, the trombone, the trumpet, and all the rest—a bird may be named that bears the fundamental tone of such instrument in its throat, and which has been copied by man in the making of the instrument. To the nightingale he assigns in this bird-orchestra the part of the organ, and even the rattling of the castanets he would trace to the peculiar noise made by some birds of prey with their bill.

Besides their songs with which they greet Spring, and their notes of pain and joy, birds have still other sounds which they use only on certain occasions. Many birds, besides the rooster, herald the early dawn and sunrise with certain peculiar notes. Among these are the lark, the linnet, the curlew, the plover, the lapwing, and the bittern. Quite a number of birds announce the coming of rain; for instance, the magpie, the owl, the yellow thrush, and the greenfinch. This is also done by means of peculiar notes which they never sound on other occasions. Nicolardot has essayed to reproduce these notes by letters. There also are storm-birds, so-called procellaria, which in a similar manner—that is to say, by the use of certain peculiar sounds—predict the coming of a storm, even a long time in advance. Domestic fowl are often watchful for strangers; especially is this the case with peacocks, who are pretty sure to announce by cries the approach of strangers to house or farm.

Birds thus can feel and announce the coming of rain and storm, and already the ancients ascribed to them the faculty of prediction. In their flight and in their voices indications of coming events were sought. The augurs of old had established a whole science of the flight and the voices of birds. Nor is it improbable that training was resorted to, to aid in procuring such predictions—that is to say, to create favorable or unfavorable omens, whichever might happen to best suit the plans of the priests at the time.

Louis Napoleon, in our nineteenth century, intended to convince the French people, by the aid of a trained eagle which was to have alighted on his head at the right moment, that he was the predestined successor to his great uncle. Nicolardot does not go quite so far as the augurs of the ancients, but he also ascribes to birds a prescience of coming events, especially of approaching misfortune, to which feeling they lend expression by certain peculiar sounds. As an example he cites a tale from O'Meara's "Voice from St. Helena." When the French entered Moscow, this author relates, a great flock of ravens came and settled on the towers of the Kremlin. From there these birds, to which the ancients ascribed great sagacity, came flying down close to the heads of the soldiers, flapped their wings, and kept up a continuous, monotonous croaking. The troops were much disheartened by this occurrence, and feared misfortune. Shortly before the terrible conflagration broke out, all the ravens had disappeared, flying away in great numbers.

Napoleon I paid considerable attention to the voices of animals. O'Meara cites the following from a conversation of the emperor's: "How can we know that the animals have not a language of their own? Does it not seem to be very presuming on our part to deny the existence of such a language, simply because we do not understand it? We know that a horse has a memory, that it can make distinctions, that it shows antipathy and sympathy; it knows its master, and can tell him from the servants, although it sees the master but rarely, and has the grooms for company throughout the day."The emperor related that he had once owned a horse which always succeeded in finding him even when he had hidden among other people. This animal always showed his joy whenever the emperor mounted him. He would permit but one groom in whose care he was placed to get on his back, but, when this groom was the rider, the whole bearing and movements of the horse were different from what they were when the emperor rode him. In the former case the horse seemed to be fully conscious that his rider was but a subordinate. When the emperor had lost his way while out riding or hunting, he simply placed the reins on the neck of this horse, and he had always speedily and surely found the right way. Whenever the emperor approached, the horse gave expression to his joy by a special sort of neighing, and often it had seemed to Napoleon as if the animal were trying to tell him something. Nicolardot, basing his assertion on experience, maintains that each animal has a language of its own, and that it is simply due to the imperfection of our organs that we do not understand this language. In this connection we would mention that Kasper Hauser, the well-known foundling, who had eaten no meat up to his twenty-first year, insisted at the time, shortly after he was found, and before he had grown accustomed to animal food, that he understood the language of all animals, and that very often, when a dog barked or a bird chirped, he knew exactly what was meant. The animals approached him without fear, and seemed to be conscious that he could understand them, but this all came to an end when he began to take animal food. Hence, it might be inferred that the eating of meat tends to remove us from the animal world and to weaken our understanding of its ways. But, if we turn our whole attention to animals, our superior intellect will soon place us in the way of understanding their language.

About 1770 Galliani had two cats which he always kept about him, and away from all other animals. He states that he understood them perfectly, and that they had a complete language of their own in which they always expressed the same wish and the same feeling by exactly the same sound. Lucian observed the common house-fly, and also maintains that this insect, so greatly despised and persecuted, possesses a complete language—that is to say, uses certain sounds in its buzzing to denote certain things, and in this way makes itself understood among kind. Lamartine, in his descriptions of travels in the East, tells of Arabian horses that used certain definite sounds to express certain things, just as Napoleon relates of his steed.

Birds, in addition to the sounds peculiar to them, are gifted with a great talent for imitation. There is hardly a bird, provided it has any voice at all, that can not imitate, at least to a certain extent, the sounds of Nature. Birds attempt to imitate each other, the voices of other animals, and in fact all possible sounds. Parrots are able to make a noise like that produced by a saw, the sound of a cork drawn from a bottle, and other noises still more peculiar. The mocking-bird is a perfect plagiarist in the feathered world; he imitates almost all songsters, even the nightingale. The kingfisher can reproduce most accurately the cackling of hens, the barking of clogs, the quacking of ducks, and the bleating of sheep. Birds as well as mankind are apt to be vain of their voices and seek to excel one another. Especially is this the case with nightingales. In a hedge inhabited by them one may often observe that their voices increase two, ay, threefold in strength, and sometimes some of these birds are found with their throats torn—they have simply sung themselves to death! But not only in music have birds been the model followed by man, but also that peculiar and entertaining art, ventriloquism, has been copied from them. Just as many of them sing out boldly and fill the air with their melodies, others form their sounds without opening their bills. The pigeon is a well-known instance of this; its cooing can be distinctly heard, although it does not open its bill; the call is formed internally in the throat and chest, and is only rendered audible by resonance. Similar ways may be observed in many birds and other animals. The clear, loud call of the cuckoo is, according to Nicolardot, only the resonance of a note formed in the bird. The whirring of the snipe, which betrays the approach of the bird to the hunter, is an act of ventriloquism. The frog also is said not to open his mouth in croaking, but to create his far-reaching sounds by the rolling of air in his intestines. Even the nightingale has certain notes which are produced internally, and which are audible while the bill is closed. So even the art of ventriloquism (if we may call it an art), which is nowadays but little practiced, but which in former times was highly esteemed, has been taught to man by the animals.

Human society seems attractive to birds, as Nicolardot proves by numerous instances; especially have song-birds a great fondness for human dwellings, and rarely do they go far away from them. It almost seems as if they were vain of the admiration bestowed on their song. They lay and hatch better in parks than in woods. Nicolardot says that the cuckoo, the crow, the quail, and the lark, never live in districts entirely untenanted by man. There are quite a number of city and village birds which always settle in the immediate neighborhood of human dwellings. Among these are the starling, the nightingale, the finch, and the sparrow, but above all the stork. All of these birds are said to imitate, by their calls or their song, the human voice, or else noises which are to be heard about dwellings. For instance, it is said that the stork in Africa—though this we would not like to vouch for—is dumb, and that his clappering here is but an imitation of the sharpening of scythes. This sound is supposed to be specially pleasing to the stork, because on freshly cut meadows he always finds food in plenty, and therefore it is presumed that he imitates this noise as suggestive of a rich dinner. All of these birds show great fondness for, and are said to be capable of imitating, the human voice, if one were only to take sufficient pains in training them. And, more than this, they can repeat entire words like the parrot. That starlings and ravens can talk is a well-known fact, but instances are known where other kinds of birds have learned to speak. Russ, for instance, in his book on ornithology, tells about a canary, owned by an actress, which was capable of speaking some words distinctly.

Other birds have a special liking for certain sounds—owls, for instance, like the tolling of bells. Nicolardot says that a special variety of owl, the "tower-owl," which preferably nests in bell-towers of churches, closely imitates in its cry the sound given out by bells. He also states that it is a comparatively easy matter, calling only for a little trouble and patience, to teach the green-finch and the yellow thrash to talk. Song-birds especially are said to be capable of a musical education much more extensive than they commonly receive nowadays. They are said not only to be able to repeat short melodies whistled to them, but also to sing to the accompaniment of instruments. Maximus, of Tyre, relates, in his "Philosophical Conversations" (translated by Torme), that a certain man, who devoted much of his time and attention to animals, had kept a number of birds of different kinds in his room. Every morning during the beginning of their captivity they sang and chirped—each in its own way—giving rise to much noise and great confusion. In a comparatively short time, however, this man had succeeded in training his birds so that they joined him in making music. He played the flute, and the birds accompanied his playing with their voices, at certain passages all singing correctly in chorus. The responsibility for the truth of this story we must leave to the narrator; however, it is a fact that, in the musical training of birds, wonderful things may be done.

During the time of Napoleon III, there was at Paris a so-called charmeur who came every noon into the garden of the Tuileries and fed the birds of all kinds. The animals knew him by sight, and came to him at once. He could call them individually, and they would perch on his fingers, and, if he whistled certain signal-notes for them, they would repeat these clearly and distinctly.

In these days we are ever seeking and searching; we penetrate deeply into all domains of Nature, and believe ourselves to be approaching to a more true conception of the world about us. But rarely has it been seriously attempted to study the voices of Nature, which form so important a chord in the great concert of creation. Undoubtedly there is here yet much that lies unrevealed, and that is well worth attentive study and investigation. Perchance this might lead to important conclusions concerning the great secret of life in its organic function, which nowhere draws a sharp line between the animal and the vegetable kingdom, and which joins the latter by insensible gradations to the mineral world. The first attempt in this direction has been made by Nicolardot with his work, and this well merits our interest and appreciation.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Ueber Land und Meer.