28 July 2010

Being a bird


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 andI see you 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?

Photos:
1.Tauhou
; silvereye or waxeye (Zosterops lateralis).
2. Kereru (New Zealand pigeon; Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae).


Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor

20 comments:

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
It is a bit synchronistic finding these words from you this evening. I was actually returning to your prior post to re read the comment which made reference to Ivan Doig and his description of the flight of the eagle or hawks as "Correcting Correcting". I just returned from three days in the Ruahine, and had one spectular day of sunshine and blue sky, and I was sitting in the sun up near the snow covered tops above Purity hut. Out of nowhere a kahu swooped past me, so near I felt the wind from it, and heard the whoosh of the feathers, like the last sound ever heard by an unwary mouse, hare, or other rodent. I am not even sure if it was aware I was there, but he then proceeded to climb just above me and soar, and as I watched him I could only think, "Correcting Correcting".
It is interesting to spend time alone in the mountains how our listening changes the longer we are there. After a few days I sort of let go of trying to find a man made reason for sounds I cannot immediately identify. I guess that is also one of the beautiful aspects of music, that eventhough we are trapped within ourselves we can find common ground to enjoy.
Cheers,
Robb

Anonymous said...

Kahu. Tui. Korimako. Riroriro. These are words I have never heard spoken. There are bird songs I have never heard sung. What would my reaction be - that first time? Would it change after hearing again and again? It does. I have known the thrill of having a Raven answer my call... I have had elk come bursting through the brush when I vocalized (or bugled). Sometimes it's not the sound but just movement. While speeding along a dirt road in a remote part of Arizona a golden eagle swooped and flew right along side us just outside my window for a minute. Not sure what it is I am trying to convey except this: it was during those moments that I felt free - not trapped within myself. If you can imagine what it's like to be a hawk on the morning wind... perhaps.......
-Maureen

Anne-Marie said...

I love that you've been posting so much about birds recently, both photos and words. How dull would our world be without birds? I know my garden would be far less interesting without that gaggle of starlings chomping the last of the apples off the tree, the korimako singing unseen from the bottle brush, the kahu gliding silently over the back lawn. Not to mention Henry the rooster testing his vocal chords first thing in the morning!

You help me appreciate birds even more - thank you.

Bob McKerrow said...

What is it like to be a kahu, a hawk on the morning wind?

I can't answer that one Pete, but when I was in the high Andes, I used to lie on my back and watch the Condors hover, swoop, dive and look at me from above. Then, I was able to dream I was on the Condor's back, and the view was better than that of any summit.

Keep up the inspirational writing. Bob

Relatively Retiring said...

You entitle this 'Being a Bird', but it equally applies to thinking about being human.
We are indeed 'trapped within ourselves'. I can never know if the colour I call 'green' is what anyone else sees as 'green'. The imagining and the constant reaching out for understanding is what keeps us fully alive.

On the bird theme, I have a resident population around here who fully understand my routines and have me well-trained. They probably know more about me than I do about them.

pohanginapete said...

Kia ora Robb. Moments like those, when the wild comes so close, must surely be among the highlights of any life worth living. As I write this I assume you and Gustav will be settled down at Iron Gates, and I’d be delighted if you got to hear the whistle of a whio (a good chance, there) — whenever I hear that sound, my heart leaps.

Maureen, my guess is that people have one of two responses to hearing a bird’s song, or other wild call, repeatedly: some quickly stop hearing it — it becomes background — but those who take the time to listen come to appreciate it more and more. To call back and hear a reply, as you describe for the raven and elk, must be the kind of moment that makes up for many long, tedious days. I agree, too — who knows where the limits of imagination lie?

Thank you, Anne-Marie. I find a world without birds impossible to imagine; I sometimes imagine, too, what birds would think of us if they had the level of consciousness to understand how limited we are, constrained so powerfully by gravity while they (mostly) move so freely in three dimensions. I’m glad to hear you mentioned Henry, too — chooks, I think, are often the forgotten birds.

Thanks Bob :^) I’ve never seen condors (South America’s still on the long term plan), but I have seen lammergeiers in the Himalaya. One sailed low overhead on the Annapurna trail; my porter looked up and said, “It’s looking for chicken”. I wouldn’t have given much for the chook’s chances.

RR, that’s so true about the imagining and reaching for understanding. Often I’ve thought that the turning point in a person’s life must come when curiosity no longer outweighs recollection; when we begin living in our own history we begin the process of no longer creating it. I suspect you’re right about your birds’ knowing your routines, too — if we were as aware of theirs, imagine how much we’d notice!

the watercats said...

It's so true about being trapped inside ourselves, we can never truly be interpreted by another and we will always, ultimately, be on our own. I've also often wondered what various 'vocalisation' means. Even though the science part of my head says a robin is singing because it is marking it's territory, I can't help but think it's singing for the pure exhilaration of the excersize!

pohanginapete said...

Watercats, I think your intuition's right on the mark. I'm sure birds don't sing because they think "I must mark my territory"; I think they sing because they feel compelled to sing and the territory marking is a consequence of that, not a cause. It's like hugging someone we love — we do it because we love hugging her/him, not because we think it strengthens our relationship, although we might be aware of that, and it has that effect.

I can't imagine a bird singing if it didn't like singing.

AJB said...

Pete,

Saw this tooday...

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100803101914.htm

Andrew.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Andrew. Intriguing...

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

ok - so excellent photos as always.

Sometimes i look at my cat and wonder how it can possibly understand that this strange two legged blob that brings food is still the same blob when it comes down the road at 40mph - and yet it recognises enough of the world to identify cars that should be beyond its understanding.

And can open doors, despite the lack of opposing digits

Maybe we have such diverse types of life on the planet to remind us how wonderful and fragile existence really is?

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixies, thanks. Yes, cats are adept at opening doors: they don't even have to touch them; they just get their staff to open them.

The diversity of life really is astonishing. I just wish more people not only realised that, but valued it to the point of acting on it.

Thanks for the thoughts :^)

Brenda Schmidt said...

"What's the difference between singing and calling?"

Nice. One could spend endless lifetimes exploring that question.

pohanginapete said...

Brenda — and then there are all the other questions, like whether birds think, "What a lousy day. Wish I were still snugged up warm and comfortable on the roost", or whether they just get on with looking for worms and grubs and stuff.
:^)

Lydia said...

It hardly seems fair at all that it would take me three weeks to stop over to read this post, and to be rewarded with such beauty. Those birds! And the links! And your thoughts ... speaking of: I'm glad I read the comments and your replies too, because your reply to RR contains a true gem of a quote -- "Often I’ve thought that the turning point in a person’s life must come when curiosity no longer outweighs recollection; when we begin living in our own history we begin the process of no longer creating it."

Thank you for introducing me to this world of birds I've never known.

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, thank you. I've loved birds all my life, and the more I live with them and enjoy them and think about them, the more I'm in awe of them. In a world where so few of us have so little contact with wildness (often none that isn't human), birds offer us the chance to see not just what it is to be "other" and wild, but also what it is to be truly human.

Lydia said...

Beautifully said.

We have three giant Sequoias in our back lot (we purchased the lot in order to save the trees, actually, as development took one of their siblings in the lot next door and time was ticking for "our" trees). They are home and resting place for quite a few different kinds of birds. The consistent population is the multitude of scrub jays, whose personalities I adore. They must consider me their personal chef because when I walk out the door they can see me they begin calling -- even if they are in trees down the block -- and swooping into our yard for peanuts. There was also the annual visit from what seems to be a singular nuthatch in mid-summer but he/she must be on its way to winter grounds now.

Lots of hummingbirds right now...

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, I'd love to see a hummingbird. When I get to South America, perhaps...

I did see a nuthatch in Mongolia in 2004, and still remember the thrill.

20th Century Woman said...

One of the joys of coming to New Zealand is the birds. Your pictures are lovely. I, too, often wonder what it would be like to live as a bird. I think I would like to come back as a sea gull. They have so many choices.

pohanginapete said...

20th Century Woman, thank you. That's an intriguing choice of bird, and a good justification. I like it. :)