Rob Hardy: 'Aaaaw to Zzzzzd'


Rob Hardy



My guess is that you have already heard birds singing sometime today. I am not a birdwatcher, but you don''t have to be one to notice that birds fit in all around us, and there are few environments, urban or rural, that are not enlivened by birdsong.  


So, what are all those birds saying? Wouldn''t it be handy to have, like a tourist in a foreign country carrying a phrasebook, a dictionary guide to all the cheeps and chirps of birdland? Now there is one, only it is not to cheeps and chirps, but to "g-leek", "keer keer", "weet-weet-weet-weet-zee-zee" and "chi-weep." When you hear a bird call "kwesh kwesh kwesh," you will simply look for it under the "K" section of "Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds" (The MIT Press) by John Bevis, and you will find that you have been hearing Steller''s jay.  


This original, absurd, and funny dictionary attempts the impossible and fails, and by doing so makes us appreciate all the more the complexity of birds and their songs, and the inescapable drive that humans have to categorize and catalogue, and the resistance of nature to such human endeavors. 


Bevis explains that poets and naturalists have tried for centuries to replicate birdsong in human language. "Their legacy is a glorious vocabulary of thousands of unique words from the "aaaaw" of the black skimmer to the "zzzzzd" of the lazuli bunting. Naturally, different poets and different naturalists hear the same song different ways and transcribe it differently. We do this with human language all the time; the spelling of the embattled Libyan leader Qaddafi, Gadhafi, Gaddafi, Qadhafi or Kadafi has been reported in more than a hundred variants, so it isn''t surprising that one birder will hear "keer" and another "cheer", with resultant competing transcriptions, and confusion of the entry order for the ornithological lexicographer.  


Bevis has gone through the many attempts at transcription, and has forced a consensus for his entries here. The syrinx of birds, of course, is different from the larynx of humans, and they don''t have our ability to use glottal stops or lip movements to modify their sounds. Some consonant sounds of birds, he informs us, are in accord with our own speech, and k, s, t and z sounds are relatively distinct, whereas bird vowels "are often more sinuous than ours, but can be approximated in vowel clusters, chains, and diphthongs." 


The antic surrealism of putting these nonsense words in what ought to be "useful" alphabetical order is appealing, and in his text, Bevis refers once to the Dadaist sound poetry of Hugo Ball. The Dada spirit is captured by the full page, black and white photographs which separate the different parts of the text. None of them show any birds. They are of landscapes and buildings in, one assumes, Bevis'' native Shropshire, and the captions for the photos have nothing to do with what is depicted.  


Figure 24, a grove of trees, is labeled "Attempts to convey the voice of a bird by means of written language must necessarily lack precision."  


Figure 18, railway lines receding into the distance, says, "Calls vary in number and complexity from one species to another, and from one individual to another." Perhaps Bevis is in this manner forcing us to consider bird listening rather than bird watching, or perhaps that is just my attempt to impose meaning onto a Dada clash. Bevis says that, for all the absurdity, he has tried to make this little book to be a useful field guide.  


"In a way, I''m calling the bluff of ornithologists -- if they''re happy to make up words that seem to them to represent the sounds of birds, then a glossary of those words ought to be legitimate." 


One thing this dictionary is not is a guide to the mnemonics which people have hung onto bird speech, as if the birds were trying to speak English. Sometimes these English phrases have become the name of the bird, as in the whippoorwill. The phrases, like the "drink your teeee" of the rufous-sided towhee or "who cooks for you, who cooks for you all" of the barred owl "catch the rhythm and emphasis of the song in words and phrases from the English language, regardless of the failure of vowel or, especially, consonant sounds to equate."  


These mnemonics have their own little chapter here, separate from the alphabetical listings that cannot be confused with English. Another chapter lists the different ways humans have tried to collect or order birdsongs, of which turning them into written vowels and consonants is only one.  


A bird''s song was first recorded in 1889, and since then microphones and recording devices have dramatically improved. In 1965, the sounds of about 25 percent of bird species had been recorded, and now it is more than 90 percent. 


There is a "Saunders notation" which Bevis says is the closest method "of collecting birdsong using pencil and paper alone," but it seems not to be widely used. Researchers use sonograms of bird calls, a graphic display of what is heard forming curves and spikes of black ink.  


Few birders, however, can look at these diagrams and form a useful idea of what the bird sounds like. The chapter also lists the ways that humans have tried to mimic bird calls, from the whistles made from reed or bamboo used by hunters in the field to the pendulum-driven whistles in the cuckoo clock ("arguably the most persistently ridiculed object in the history of home furnishing"). Mention is also made of devices used to teach birds human compositions, like the bird organ or serinette. 


Bevis gives useful general information about birdsong in his introductory notes. There is a differentiation between singing and calling. Calls are more utilitarian; they announce the bird''s presence, warn of predators, state a need for food, and so on.  


Calls might be more than vocal; the drummings of the woodpecker or the clackings of stork bills do the same thing. Songs are primarily a means for a male to advertise himself, as a breeder or as a defender of territory. For different species, songs range from being completely known by the bird just from having singing DNA to being completely dependent on learning songs from the environment.  


Different birds have evolved with songs that inhabit different sonic niches, and this process continues: Those who live in the city, for instance, are singing shorter, faster bursts of song at higher pitches than their country cousins in order to overcome urban noise.  


The main parts of the book, however, are the lexicons (one is given for North America and another for Britain and Northern Europe). I can easily hear the American robin saying "cheerily cheer-up cheerio;" I''m no birder, but that one is quite familiar. If you hear a bird say "chink," you are going to have to have a lot more information, because when one looks up "chink", it is listed as belonging to the blue grosbeak, brown towhee, green-tailed towhee, Nashville warbler, Virginia''s warbler and the white-throated sparrow. I bet that the laughing gull really says "haa-haa-haa-haa" and the Canada goose "honk-a-lonk."  


It seems bizarre to me, however, that the California quail should go "chi-ca-go." This is a funny, strange, lovely book, and if you know any bird enthusiasts, they don''t have anything like it on their shelves already.


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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