Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/June 1891/The Music of the Birds



HEN MUSIC.—Late, one night, as I chanced near the hennery with a light, I was rewarded by an exquisite exhibition of the communicative ability of our domestic fowls. The hens moved on their perches; when the rooster spoke, rousing them still more. Stepping back, I soon heard a little sound, high and "exceeding fine," with a deceiving, ventriloquous quality. Long spun, and then bent down in a graceful descent of the interval of a sixth, it terminated in a more decided tone, a peculiar tremor something less than a trill, and died away in a beautiful diminish:

This model example in pianissimo practice, and in the art of holding the breath, proved to come from one of the hens; and, though the exact tones are here represented, no idea can be conveyed of the unique, perfect performance. The quieting effect on the family was instantaneous; not another move or peep. The descent noted is similar to that made by the screech-owl. The intervals are identical; but the hen slides down with an oily smoothness, while the owl, as elsewhere shown, comes trembling, shivering down.

Being an hour late with their breakfast one morning, I was received by the feathered supplicants with unusual demonstra-tions. They crowded about me so closely I could hardly step without treading on their toes. With heads lifted much higher than one would think they could be, and eyes shining, their tones and inflections were exceedingly human. Like all birds, wild or tame, hens employ, ascending and descending, the intervals of our scale, except in cases as above described; they use the half-step and whole step, the major and minor thirds, the fourth, fifth, and sixth, with a good sprinkling of chromatics. In this instance, every degree of the staff was brought into requisition, the slide of a fourth upward occurring oftenest.

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The notes of one hen were all the same, and piano:

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But the rooster's petition "led all the rest." Striding about in the rear, an occasional brief command attesting his title of "captain," at length he burst out into this sonorous strain:

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The captain's voice was round and powerful, and his intonation perfect. The slides of the third and fourth were carried up with a noble crescendo; and, when he rose to the tonic at the close, the effect was thrilling as that of a clarion blast. What with his sturdy song and dignified, soldierly bearing, the captain's effort was full of hints, in manner and motive, for the composer, the singer, and the orator. When, a few mornings after his notable improvisation, I found the captain's lifeless body, I was not surprised at the gentle demeanor of his many widows; they felt, perhaps more keenly than I, that one of the mighty had fallen.

It was several weeks before I found a substitute for the captain; at length a boy brought him, and I saw at a glance that he was the "general." With a word or two by way of greeting, he paused and stood erect before the bereft hens. Soon a pullet, the only shy member of the company, ran to him and put her head close to his. If the general moved, Ruth-like, she moved. A mourner of wider experience was no less interesting in behavior. For some moments she stood aloof in disgust; then, with more ruffle at her neck than was becoming, flew at the general with all fury. The astonished soldier returned several blows, then, checking himself, held his head to the ground, covered with confusion. The fair insulter had no idea of quitting; she continued the onslaught, finally ending it with a series of smart picks square on the lordly comb. The general "grinned and bore it," and thus ended the ludicrous mistake; for a mistake it was, the general fancying for an instant that he was dealing with a foeman worthy of his spur. On discovering his blunder, he was glad to suffer the most crushing humiliation. The new-comer proved a lusty crower; and, after taking his morning call several times, and finding it without variation, I recorded him:

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But one day, at a late hour, when he was at large, I heard him use very different intervals. Listening to the strange version over and over again, I was much surprised and perplexed; for, if I had erred in his case, which was a plain one, what might be my errors in intricate cases! I immediately changed the record to the new form, and wrote in the margin, "Every man is a genius in going wrong." But the next morning my ear caught the first form again. The second was this:

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The same to the eye, but very unlike to the ear. Had the second form been given in the key of the first, thus:

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it would have seemed more natural; but, as I was correct in both instances, I reasoned that the rooster might be. I finally settled it that the general's first form was his morning indoor salute, and that the second was his out-of-doors "every-day" song; and, furthermore, that he or some of his ancestry had stolen his text from a strain in "The Seven Sleepers," which in my memory runs:

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(Oh, Pro - con - sul!)

However, a waggish composer offset this theft when he caught the jubilant cackle of a hen as she broke from her nest, heart and throat full of joyous melody snatched it bodily, I say, clapped it to paper, and made "Old Dan Tucker":

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Rose-breasted Grossbeak.—I have had several interviews with this bird in different States, but never when prepared to take more than his key-note; so I give his song mostly from memory, feeling confident, however, of the accuracy of the main features and the spirit of it.

The black and white dress of the grossbeak, his breast adorned with a brilliant rose star, instantly attracts the eye, and his loud, ringing song as surely arrests the ear. He sings rapidly and energetically, as if in a hurry to be through and off. No bird sings with more ardor. While on paper his song resembles the robin's, and the key of E flat major and its relative minor are common to both, the voice and delivery are very unlike the robin's:

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I am told that this bird has also a very musical whistling call.

I found the grossbeaks in Belknap County, N. H., in June, 1886, and in St. Lawrence County, N. Y., in June, 1887.

In their fall migrations they go in flocks, occasionally calling upon the farmers for food, appearing as tame and as much at home as if they had been raised by them. Flocks have passed through northern New Hampshire on their journey south in December, paying leisurely visits to the cider mills for the apple seeds in the cast-off pomace, apparently very little concerned about the cold.

Black-billed Cuckoo.—It is the black-billed cuckoo whose song, with very little merit, has become famous. It must be the low pitch, the solemn manner of delivery, and the quality of tone, that have attracted the attention of the writers; for there is little variety in the rhythm and the least possible in the melody. The rather doleful, straightforward repetition of the singer's name is not heard every day; the cuckoo, too, has his moods.

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I have heard this bird nearly every summer of my life, and never any departure from the old, monotonous strain, until recently (1888). Early one June morning, sultry and warm, a bird was exercising his voice in a manner that set me on the alert; it was the voice of a cuckoo, but not the cuckoo's song:

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At first thought, it was some bird that had practiced under a cuckoo master. It was an anxious moment, but presently all was settled:

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The instant I heard "cuckoo," more especially the second one, giving the interval of a fourth, I experienced a thrill of satisfaction such as no similar discovery had afforded. Other ears, sharper than mine, had heard all, unknown to me, and there was great rejoicing; the cuckoo was learning to sing.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo.—The yellow-billed cuckoo, though he tries hard to make a showing of vocal talent, succeeds only in producing a slovenly, guttural blubbering, with barely tone enough to give positive pitch. The beginning of this effort is a sepulchral and somewhat protracted sound, which bursts into several rapid, boisterous bubbles, followed by others softer and slower, farther and farther apart:

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The yellow-breasted chat exhibits the same rhythmic pecul-iarity in his chattings, and so does the woodpecker, drumming on a board or dry limb for the mere sound of it; but in quality nothing can be compared with this slopping performance, unless it be that of the loose-mouthed hound lapping from a pan of milk.

The cuckoos, graceful, beautiful birds, and ever rapt in solemn reverie, are solitary voices, seldom heard more than one at a time.

Observations carried on for nearly two years at the observatories of Berlin, Potsdam, and Prague indicate the existence of a periodical oscillation in latitude. The maximum occurs in summer, the minimum in winter, and the amount is 0′ 25″. The observations have been conducted with the greatest exactitude, and the results of the three sets are concordant. M. Gaillot has communicated a similar result from observations taken at Paris between 1856 and 1861. The variation may be ascribed to a periodical displacement of the earth's axis, in which case, while the amplitude of the phenomena will be the same at all stations, the times of maxima and minima will vary with the longitude; or it may be an effect due to refraction, in which case the periods will be the same at all the stations.