Outside in the dim light of another grey, damp dawn, the tui sings — or calls. What's the difference between singing and calling? As I wonder about this, the korimako calls — and that seems the appropriate word for the scolding, the slightly harsh "yak yak yak yak" which I assume (perhaps wrongly) is an alarm call. But I also hear a riroriro singing, and that, too, seems the unassailably correct word — melodious, easy on the ear, with a complex, definite structure in which each note seems to follow naturally from its predecessor.
This, of course, is a human interpretation, but what does a bird hear when it hears another of its own species singing (or calling)? What if the singer and the listener belong to different species; what does the riroriro hear when it hears the tui's astonishingly complex vocalisation (there, I've found another term, one that subsumes singing and calling — a dry, scientific, apparently objective term, but a useful one)? The best we can do to answer these questions is to use a combination of science and long, engaged observation to help us imagine the answers, recognising as we do that we can never truly know, that we can never hear like any bird even if our ears could capture precisely the same range of frequencies. Much of the time we guess wrong when we try to understand what one of our own species hears — a song, for example, or a sound in the night. I hear boring, toneless, puerile, repetitive chanting; you hear complex, clever, rhythmic insight into the modern condition. You hear unexplained footsteps; I hear the house releasing the heat of the day. Sometimes, admittedly, we claim to hear the same thing or, by some comment or gesture, suggest it, but always the inescapable truth remains: we are trapped inside ourselves.
I look up. The clouds in the west have turned pastel orange with a faint hint of mauve in the grey; blackbirds hop about the paddock and sparrows cheep (that, at least, is accurate — it's neither song nor call, and "vocalisation" tells us nothing about the quality of a sparrow's cheep). As I gaze outside, a kahu sails past, a long, low, even glide right across the window-framed view.
What is it like to be a kahu, a hawk on the morning wind?
1.Tauhou; silvereye or waxeye (Zosterops lateralis).
2. Kereru (New Zealand pigeon; Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae).
Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor