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Mystery in the Music of the Talented Songbird

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``Why Birds Sing'' by David Rothenberg; Basic Books ($26)


David Rothenberg is a philosopher, and his approach to the study of birdsong is, at times, fairly bookish. But his first major step toward understanding birdsong is certainly what you'd call hands-on: He goes to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and makes music with the birds.

A jazz musician and composer, Rothenberg begins to play, wishing his music "could be at once as spontaneous and correct as what birds sing." When a white-crested laughing thrush responds to his clarinet, altering its song to "play" with him, Rothenberg is transported, and his curiosity piqued. He wants to know why birds sing, as the title of his book suggests, but he also wants to understand the nature of their song. Is it a programmed instinct performed by rote, or is it complex and creative, something more like what we call music?

Thanks to Darwin, these days we attribute much of animal behavior to one simple but essential drive: propagation of the species. The male bird sings to attract the female - because, as Rothenberg says with sweet simplicity, "she likes it." But, he writes, that doesn't necessarily explain the wonderful diversity of songs in the bird world. A wood-pewee has just three songs in his repertoire, while a thrush can sing 50 and a thrasher 2,000. Furthermore, can sexual selection explain the eccentricities of the magnificent Albert's lyrebird of Australia, who often performs his elaborate song out of earshot of a female, or long after the mating season has ended? Put another way, does science have all the answers?

Rothenberg doesn't think so. In fact, not content with any one perspective, he alights on the branches of every discipline from biology to poetry to avant-garde jazz. He thrills to the complicated music of the nightingale and John Coltrane. He quotes the quintessential American poet, Walt Whitman, on the quintessential American bird, the mockingbird. ("Oh throat! Oh trembling throat! Sound clearer through the atmosphere!") Poets and musicians make art for many reasons, one of which is the life-love it expresses. Rothenberg begins to wonder - could birds sing for the sheer joy of it? (For the record, Darwin allowed that birds sometimes sing to express emotion, from distress to fear to "mere happiness." And you thought science wasn't warm and fuzzy.)

A few chapters (and charts of the avian brain) later, Rothenberg begins to sound a bit like a bird of 2,000 songs himself. He's comfortable with topics as diverse as musical notation and neurology, bringing all of them to life in a way few specialists could hope to. But his wide-ranging approach can make it hard to find one thread to follow, and a beginner might want to come up for breath between chapters.

Still, his diverse perspectives lead to one of the most compelling ideas in the book - that a real understanding of birdsong may depend on cooperation between the disciplines. He tells the story of two whale scientists who recorded the clicking calls of sperm whales off the Canary Islands in order to study them. Problem was, the scientists couldn't pick out individual songs within the noisy chatter.

They called upon a Senegalese drum master, whose ear was attuned to finding his own rhythm in a huge ensemble of players, to point out each whale's song. Not only do science and art need each other, Rothenberg later suggests, they may just be different ways of listening.

It's too bad the bird philosopher named his book something so definitive. The title "Why Birds Sing makes it sound as if the book has all the answers, like a textbook or an owner's manual. But what makes this book unique and, at times, truly beautiful, is its open-endedness, its willingness to be unsure. All his restless questioning brings him back to where he started: an almost transcendental joy at listening to nature's music.

The final chapter finds him crouching behind a bush in Australia, spying on "a lyrebird possessed" as it shakes its brilliant tail feathers and sings from dawn until noon.

He concludes that no one human faculty can explain birdsong, and even if it could, it would never lay the matter to rest. Beneath our mental calisthenics lies something deeper, older, and much more lasting. "No explanation will ever erase the eternal need for song."


(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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