The music of songbirds is among the most remarkable sounds in the natural world. Yet biologists have yet to decipher the evolutionary purpose and function of these beautiful marvels of nature. Do the songs of songbirds exist solely for the birds’ own lighthearted pleasure? Or is there something more complex taking place in those mysterious noises that we have yet to discover?
In a recent feature in her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova points to musician David Byrne who writes in his book How Music Works of some “scientifically controversial theories suggesting that music is a spontaneous rather than adaptive phenomenon and birds sing simply because they enjoy singing.” Which is exactly where philosopher and jazz musician David Rothenberg enters the picture. In his brilliant book Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into The Mystery Of Bird Song, Rothenberg explores the astonishing richness of birdsong, and the aesthetic and a scientific mysteries embedded within. The following is a summary of the book: “Evolutionists have never been able to completely explain why birdsong is so inventive and why many species devote so many hours to singing. The standard explanations of defending territories and attracting mates don’t begin to account for the variety and energy that the commonest birds exhibit. Is it possible that birds sing because they like to? This seemingly naive explanation is starting to look more and more like the truth. ’Why Birds Sing’ is a lyric exploration of birdsong that blends the latest scientific research with a deep understanding of musical beauty and form. Drawing on conversations with neuroscientists, ecologists, and composers, it is the first book to investigate the elusive question of why birds sing and what their song means to both avian and human ears. Whether playing his clarinet with the whitecrested laughing thrush in Pittsburgh, or jamming in the Australian winter breeding grounds of the Albert’s lyrebird, Rothenberg immerses himself in the heart and soul of birdsong. He approaches the subject as a naturalist, philosopher, musician, and investigator. An intimate look at the most lovely of natural phenomena, and now with a CD with over one hour of music and birdsong, ‘Why Birds Sing’ is a beautifully written exploration of a phenomenon that’s at once familiar and profoundly alien.”
You can purchase your own copy of Rothenberg’s extraordinary 2006 book Why Birds Sing on Amazon, and to learn more you can visit the book’s website at WhyBirdsSing.com. In closing her article, Popova writes about the 2007 BBC documentary Why Birds Sing which pits “the two leading explanations evolutionary biologists have of why birds sing — to attract mates and repel rivals — against Rothenberg’s theories of pleasure-driven bird song.” You can watch it in full below (part 1 of 6) and to learn more about the documentary you can visit BrainPickings.org. You can also check out Rothenberg’s blog DavidRothenberg.wordpress.com.