Music in the world of birds

Benvenuto a Namibia’s vibrant capital city Windhoek
June 25, 2013
Etosha’s human footprint
June 26, 2013
Benvenuto a Namibia’s vibrant capital city Windhoek
June 25, 2013
Etosha’s human footprint
June 26, 2013
Text and photographs by Pompie Burger
Main photo: Woodland kingfisher. Photo ©Pompie Burger 


Music is not a commodity you just buy and sell. It is pure, clean, even sacred. Music is about passion. I respect it because I believe it is a God-given gift.

Aster Aweke, Ethiopian singer

Research has it that the reason Beethoven, Mozart and other great classical composers were so brilliant was that they recognised the link between bird calls and the western world’s eight note scales.

Apparently birds communicate only in two ways – singing and calling – singing being the longer, more complicated and melodious version and used mainly in a sexual context. On the other hand, calling is shorter and used for keeping in contact and as a warning signal when danger lurks. After many years of intensive research, I’ve come to the conclusion that bird sounds can actually be grouped in no less than fifteen different categories. But please don’t quote me on this one. Not yet.

The main and obviously most important function is the sexual context. Some birds really go to extremes to do the mating thing, very much like some musicians go over board with their special effects on stage. When the Woodland Kingfisher, for instance, makes his melodious mating call, he complements it by a very elaborate flashing of his underwear. This just goes to show the extent to which sexual stimulation can drive you.

The second-most important function of sound in the avian world is for birds to keep in contact with each other, like the babblers that are quite hilarious when they try to out-‘babble’ each other, rather than simply have a conversation. It could well be that they lose their reason for a while.

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Arrow-marked babbler. Photo ©Pompie Burger

Black-faced, Arrow-marked and Hartlaub’s Babblers are good examples of this exercise. Thus far I agree with the experts, but from here on it’s all new stuff! The danger-alert call is obviously a very important function for their survival. Apparently certain francolins, like raptors, have a different call for when danger, such as snakes, threatens from the ground.

Territorial demarcation is especially important for raptors (big birds, big egos!), like the all too well-known African Fish Eagle, its melodious call so typical of Namibia’s waterways. To deter their enemies, many birds use their voices to great effect. Watching or rather hearing a Blacksmith Lapwing reacting to potential danger at its nest will definitely impress and frighten any intruder away.

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White browed Robin chat. Photo ©Pompie Burger

Entertainment is as important as any of the above-mentioned functions. The sounds made by a Chestnut-vented Tit-babbler or Rockrunner early in the morning, or by a White-browed Robin-Chat at dawn, illustrates what I mean. The identification role of bird voices is probably not that important for the birds, but for the birdwatcher it is of incredible value when identifying them. I doubt if even nightjars can differentiate between different species without hearing their sounds. Imagine a male Fiery-necked Nightjar becoming sexually involved with a female Rufous-necked Nightjar. Have you ever tried to identify a lark without hearing its call? I must confess I can’t even identify them when they do call.

Ornithologists have made ample use of bird sounds to name different birds. In Afrikaans some of the better efforts are the Kelkiewyn (Namaqua Sandgrouse), Piet-my-vrou (Red-chested Cuckoo) and Kwêvoël (Grey Go-away-bird). In English the Bleating Warbler, Diderick Cuckoo and Hadeda Ibis are a few of the better-known ones. I must confess the name of the Laughing Dove still baffles me; somehow that bubbling up-and-down call doesn’t sound like amusement to me.

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Northern black korhaan. Photo ©Pompie Burger

I’ve always wanted to write something intelligent about cisticolas. Now at last I have the opportunity. Looking through the list of cisticolas in Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, it finally dawned on me how the ornithologists arrived at their names. They simply identified the emotional pitch of the calls, as in Wailing, Tinkling, Rattling, Singing, Chirping and Croaking! With names like Clapper, Monotonous and Melodious, they also applied this opus operandi when naming the larks.

Aping or imitating is a well-known tool in the bird toolbox, and it is used to great effect. The Forked-tailed Drongo is a master imitator, as are the Rufous-tailed Palm-Thrush and White-browed Scrub-Robin. Speaking is another human function that birds can mimic, although I’m somewhat skeptical about this. Even so, parrots and crows are probably the champion ‘bird talkers’.

The prima donnas of duet singing in the world of birds are undoubtedly the shrikes. The Crimson-breasted Shrike, Bokmakierie and Swamp and Tropical Boubous have perfected the art. Many of today’s musicians can take note from these little beauties.

Birds which will definitely not progress beyond the first round of the Idols competition are most of the seabirds, korhaans and rollers, but I doubt if any one of them cares. They can do other things. In the world of birds you also find the quiet ones. Storks are unable to utter any sound at all, except for clapping their bills.

To make matters even more complicated, research has found that there are even dialects in the sounds birds make, with the same species calling in a different dialect in different areas. I’ve heard this with my own ears when listening to Pearl-spotted Owlets.

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Cape turtle dove. Photo ©Pompie Burger

On a classical note, apparently Mozart kept a starling and after its death composed Musical Joke K 522, which sounds very much like his pet bird. And it is said that the opening phrases of the rondo in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto Opus 61 were inspired by the European Blackbird. Elements of the cuckoo’s call are furthermore recognisable in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (the Pastoral), as well as in Respighi’s The Birds.

Which bird is then the prima donna of the feathered species? For the farmer, probably the Diderick Cuckoo announcing the advent of the rainy season; for the alcoholic, definitely the White-browed Coucal (ever heard that bottle-emptying call?); for the dassie, most certainly not the cry of Verreauxs’ Eagle; for any fish in our inland rivers, certainly not the call of Pel’s Fishing-Owl or the African Fish-Eagle.

Indeed, with their beauty and wonderful music, birds are God-given gifts, although some birds can say, like Leonard Cohen: “We are ugly, but we’ve got the music.”

About the author:
Based in Windhoek, Pompie Burger is an orthopaedic surgeon whose part-time passion is photography, in particular wildlife, and specifically birds. This regularly takes him to the most remote corners of the country, resulting in riveting images and articles. 
Pompie is the author and photographer of the coffee table book Birds of Namibia, which was published in 2008. The book contains articles and photographs which attest to the insight and knowledge of an accomplished observer.
Read more of his articles in our Birding Section.

July 2007 Flamingo magazine. 

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