Springtime Joy: Blossom and Sing!

Lowth Road, London, SE5

Ah! Wonderful Spring! My absolute favourite.

As the days get longer and warmer, where there were bare tree trunks and bare branches, now there are beautiful blossoms, fresh green shoots, buds building up to burst with joy; everything full of new life and potential.

And then there are those noisy birds in the mornings…

But oh, how I love listening to them chirping their little hearts out! They make waking up so much more enjoyable. So full of the joys of spring, chatty and excitable, the juvenile males are out there, learning song skills from their fathers.

Bird song development actually proceeds in a similar way to human language development. First off, the young birds listen to the older birds around them singing. They then start producing quiet and very varied vocalisations, akin to baby humans babbling.

During the next stage they get louder and more confident. They practice using their voice to produce sounds; they experiment, listen and refine, rehearse, and eventually learn the particular songs of their species. In most cases, their potential repertoire of sounds is much greater (and their song more varied) during this stage than it is when they mature, because when they mature, their song becomes fixed (crystallised).

In the same way, human infants up to the age of five have the ability and potential to produce a far greater range of sounds than they will have just a few years later – which sounds remain in their repertoire depends on the language(s) they are surrounded by, and thus listen to, learn to vocalise, and communicate with.

As gorgeous and delightful as birdsong sounds to me, it sounds even better to those birds involved. By experimenting with recording bird songs, and then slowing down the playback, researchers have discovered that, for example, when the human ear hears three distinct notes, the bird has actually produced five.

The reason we miss out on these extra ones, is that birds can sing their different notes in such quick succession, that human auditory perception cannot distinguish each separate note as being separate. In fact, some birds can hear up to ten separate notes during the time that we would only be able to distinguish one!

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