Idle Days in Patagonia, by W. H. Hudson

Chapter X

Bird Music in South America

Summer, winter and spring, it was an unfailing pleasure in Patagonia to listen to the singing of the birds. They were most abundant where the cultivated valley with its groves and orchards was narrowest, and the thorny wilderness of the upland close at hand; just as in England small birds abound most where plantations of fruit trees exist side by side with or near to extensive woods and commons. In the first there is an unfailing supply of insect food, the second affords them the wild cover they prefer, and they pass frequently from one to the other. At a distance from the river birds were not nearly so abundant, and in the higher uplands a hundred miles from the coast they were very scarce.

When the idle fit was on me it was my custom to ramble in the bushy lands away from the river, especially during the warm spring weather, when there were some fresh voices to be heard of migrants newly arrived from the tropics, and the songs of the resident species had acquired a greater vigour and beauty. It was a pleasure simply to wander on and on for hours, moving cautiously among the bushes, pausing at intervals to listen to some new note; or to hide myself and sit or lie motionless in the middle of a thicket, until the birds forgot or ceased to be troubled at my presence. The common resident mocking-bird was always present, each bird sitting motionless on the topmost spray of his favourite thorn, at intervals emitting a few notes, a phrase, then listening to the others.

But there was one bitter drop in my sweet cup. It vexed my mind and made me almost unhappy to think that travellers and naturalists from Europe, whose works were known to me, were either silent or else said very little (and that mostly depreciatory) of the bird music that was so much to me. Darwin’s few words were especially remembered and rankled most in my mind, because he was the greatest and had given a good deal of attention to bird life in southern South America. The highest praise that he gave to a Patagonian songster was that it had “two or three pleasant notes”; and of the Calandria mocking-bird, one of the finest melodists in La Plata, he wrote that it was nearly the only bird he had seen in South America that regularly took its stand for the purpose of singing; that it was remarkable for possessing a song superior to that of any other kind, and THAT ITS SONG RESEMBLED THAT OF THE SEDGE WARBLER!

Speaking of British species, I do not think it could be rightly said that the song of the sedge warbler resembles that of the song-thrush. I do think that the thrush’s song often resembles that of the mocking-bird referred to, also that it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that all the music of the song-thrush might be taken out of the Calandria mocking-bird’s performance and not be very greatly missed.

The desire to say something on this subject was strong in me at that time, for, leaving aside the larger question of the bird music of South America, I could not help thinking that these observers had missed the chief excellence of the songsters known to me. But I had no title to speak; I had not heard the nightingale, song-thrush, blackbird, skylark, and all the other members of that famous choir whose melody has been a delight to our race for so many ages; I was without the standard which others had, and being without it, could not be absolutely sure that a mistake had been made, and that the opinion I had formed of the melodists of my own district was not too high. Now that I am familiar with the music of British song-birds in a state of nature the case is different, and I can express myself on the subject without fear and without doubt. But I have no intention of speaking in this place of the South American bird music I know, comparing it with that of England. And this for two reasons. One is that I have already written on this subject in ‘Argentine Ornithology’ and ‘The Naturalist in La Plata’. The second reason is because bird music, and, indeed, bird sounds generally, are seldom describable. We have no symbols to represent such sounds on paper, hence we are as powerless to convey to another the impression they make on us as we are to describe the odours of flowers. It is hard, perhaps, to convince ourselves of this powerlessness; in my case the saddening knowledge was forced on me in such a way that escape was impossible. No person at a distance from England could have striven harder than I did, by inquiring of those who knew and by reading ornithological works, to get a just idea of the songs of British birds. Yet all my pains were wasted, as I found out afterwards when I heard them, and when almost every song came to me as a surprise. It could not have been otherwise. To name only half a dozen of the lesser British melodists: the little jets of brilliant melody spurted out by the robin; the more sustained lyric of the wren, sharp, yet delicate: the careless half-song, half-recitative of the common warbler; the small fragments of dreamy aerial music emitted by the wood wren amidst the high translucent foliage; the hurried, fantastic medley of liquid and grating sounds of the reed warbler; the song, called by some a twitter, of the swallow, in which the quick, upleaping notes seem to dance in the air, to fall more than one at a time on the sense, as if more than one bird sang, spontaneous and glad as the laughter of some fairy-like, unimaginable child — who can give any idea of such sounds as these with such symbols as words! It is easy to say that a song is long or short, varied or monotonous, that a note is sweet, clear, mellow, strong, weak, loud, shrill, sharp, and so on; but from all this we get no idea of the distinctive character of the sound, since these words describe only class, or generic qualities, not the specific and individual. It sometimes seems to help us, in describing a song, to give its feeling, when it strikes us as possessing some human feeling, and call it joyous, glad, plaintive, tender, and so on; but this is, after all, a rough expedient, and, often as not misleads. Thus, in the case of the nightingale, I had been led by reading to expect to hear a distinctly plaintive song, and found it so far from plaintive that I was swayed to the opposite extreme, and pronounced it (with Coleridge) a glad song. But by-and-by I dismissed this notion as equally false with the other; the more I listened the more I admired the purity of sound in some notes, the exquisite phrasing, the beautiful contrasts; the art was perfect, but there was no passion in it all — no HUMAN feeling. Feeling of some unhuman kind there perhaps was, but not gladness, such as we imagine in the skylark’s song, and certainly not sorrow, nor anything sad. Again, when we listen to a song that all have agreed to call “tender,” we perhaps recognise some quality that faintly resembles, or affects us like, the quality of tenderness in human speech or vocal music; but if we think for a moment, we are convinced that it is not tenderness, that the effect is not quite the same; that we have so described it only because we have no suitable word; that there is really no suggestion of human feeling in it.

The old method of SPELLING bird notes and sounds still finds favour with some easy-going naturalists, and it is possible that those who use it do actually believe that the printed word represents some avian sound to the reader, and that those who have never heard the sound can by this simple means get an idea of it; just as certain arbitrary marks or signs on a sheet of written music represent human sounds. It is fancy and a delusion. We have not yet invented any system of arbitrary signs to represent bird sounds, nor are we likely to invent such a system, because, in the first place, we do not properly know the sounds, and, owing to their number and character, cannot properly know more than a very few of them; and, in the second place, because they are different in each species: and just as our human notation represents solely our human specific sounds, so a notation of one bird’s language, that of the skylark, let us say, would not apply to the language of another species, the nightingale, say, on account of the difference in quality and timbre of the two.

One cause of the extreme difficulty of describing bird sounds so as to give anything approaching to a correct idea of them, lies in the fact that in most of them, from the loudest — the clanging scream or call that may be heard a distance of two or three miles — to the faintest tinkling or lisping note that might be emitted by a creature no bigger than a fly, there is a certain aerial quality which makes them differ from all other sounds. Doubtless several causes contribute to give them this character. There is the great development of the vocal organ, which makes the voice, albeit finer, more far-reaching than that of other creatures of equal size or larger. The body in birds is less solid; it is filled with air in the bones and feathers, and acts differently as a sounding board; furthermore, the extremely distensible esophagus, although it has no connection with the trachea, is puffed out with swallowed air when the bird emits its notes, and this air, both when retained and when released, in some way affects the voice. Then, again, the bird sings or calls, as a rule, from a greater elevation, and does not sit squat, like a toad, on his perch, but being lifted above it on his slender legs, the sounds he emits acquire a greater resonance.

There are bird sounds which may be, and often are, likened to other sounds; to bells, to the clanging produced by blows on an anvil, and to various other metallic noises; and to strokes on tightly-drawn metal strings; also to the more or less musical sounds we are able to draw from wood and bone, and from vessels of glass by striking them or drawing the moistened finger-tips along their rims. There are also sounds resembling those that are uttered by mammalians, as bellowings, lowings, bleatings, neighings, barkings, and yelpings. Others simulate the sounds of various musical instruments, and human vocal sounds, as of talking, humming a tune, whistling, laughing, moaning, sneezing, coughing, and so on. But in all these, or in a very large majority, there is an airy resonant quality which tells you, even in a deep wood, in the midst of an unfamiliar fauna, that the new and strange sound is uttered by a bird. The clanging anvil is in the clouds; the tinkling bell is somewhere in the air, suspended on nothing; the invisible human creatures that whistle, and hum airs, and whisper to one another, and clap their hands and laugh, are not bound, like ourselves, to earth, but float hither and thither as they list.

Something of this serial character is acquired by other sounds, even by the most terrestrial, when heard at a distance in a quiet atmosphere. And some of our finer sounds, as those of the flute and bugle and flageolet, and some others, when heard faintly in the open air, have the airy character of bird notes; with this difference, that they are dim and indistinct to the sense, while the bird’s note, although so airy, is of all sounds the most distinct.

Mr. John Burroughs, in his excellent ‘Impressions of some British Song Birds’, has said, that many of the American songsters are shy wood-birds, seldom seen or heard near the habitations of man, while nearly all the British birds are semi-domesticated, and sing in gardens and orchards; that this fact, in connection with their more soft and plaintive voices, made American song birds seem less to the European traveller than his own. This statement would hold good, and even gain in force, if for North America we should substitute the hot or larger part of South America, or of the Neotropical region, which comprises the whole of America sounth of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Throughout the tropical and sub-tropical portions of this region, which is vastly richer inspecies than the northern half of the continent, the songsters certainly do not, like those of Europe, mass themselves about the habitations of men, as if sweet voices were given to them solely for the delectation of human listeners: they are preeminently birds of the wild forest, marsh, and savannah, and if one of their chief merits has been overlooked, it is because the European naturalist and collector, whose object is to obtain many specimens, and some new forms, has no time to make himself acquainted with the life habits and faculties of the species he meets with. Again, bird life is extremely scarce in some places within the tropics, and in the deep forest it is often wholly absent. Of British Guiana, Mr. im Thurn writes: “The almost entire absence of sweet bird-notes at once strikes the traveller who comes from thrush — and warbler-haunted temperate lands.” And Bates says of the Amazonian forests: “The few sounds of birds are of that pensive and mysterious character which intensifies the feeling of solitude rather than imparts a sense of life and cheerfulness.”

It is not only this paucity of bird life in large tracts of country which has made the tropics seem to the European imagination a region “where birds forget to sing,” and has caused many travellers and naturalists to express so poor an opinion of South American bird music. There remains in most minds something of that ancient notion that brilliant-plumaged birds emit only harsh disagreeable sounds — the macaw and peacock are examples; while the sober-coloured birds of temperate regions, especially of Europe, have the gift of melody; that sweet notes are heard in England, and piercing cries and grating screams within the tropics. As a fact the dull-plumaged species in the hot regions greatly outnumber those that are gaily-coloured. To mention only two South American passerine families, the woodhewers and ant-birds, numbering together nearly five hundred species, or as many as all the species of birds in Europe, are with scarcely an exception sober-coloured. The melodious goldfinch, yellow bunting, linnet, blue tit, chaffinch, and yellow wagtail would look very gay and conspicuous among them. Yet these sober-coloured tropical birds I have mentioned are not singers.

It must also be borne in mind that South America embraces a great variety of climates; that all the vast region, which comprises Chili, the southern half of Argentina, and Patagonia, is in the temperate zone. Also, that a large proportion of the South American songsters belong to families that are universal, in which all the finest voices of Europe are included — thrushes, warblers, wrens, larks, finches. The true thrushes are well represented, and some differ but slightly from European forms — the whistle of the Argentine blackbird is sometimes mistaken by Englishmen for that of the smaller home bird. The mocking-birds form a group of the same family (Turdidae), but with more highly-developed vocal powers. It is true that the tanagers, numbering about four hundred species, mostly brilliantly-coloured, some rivalling the humming-birds in the vivid tints and metallic lustre of their plumage, form an exclusively Neotropical family; but they are closely related to the finches, and in the genera in which these two great and melodious families touch and mingle, it is impossible to say of many species which are finches and which tanagers. Another purely American family, with a hundred and thirty known species, a large majority adorned with rich or brilliant or gay and strongly-contrasted colours, are the troupials — Icteridae; and these are closely related to the starlings of the Old World.

Finally, it may be added that the true melodists of the Neotropical region — the passerine birds of the sub-order Oscines, which have the developed vocal organ — number about twelve hundred species:— a big fact when it is remembered that of the five hundred species of birds in Europe, only two hundred and five at the most are classed as songsters, inclusive of fly-catchers, corvine birds and many others which have no melody.

It is clear then, from these facts and figures, that South America is not wanting in songsters, that, on the contrary, it surpasses all other regions of the globe of equal extent in number of species.

It only remains to say something on another matter — namely, the character and value of the music. And here the reader might think that I have got myself into a quandary, since I began by complaining of the unworthy opinion expressed by European writers of the melodists of my country, and at the same time disclaimed any intention of attempting to describe their melody myself, comparing it with that of England. Fortunately for my purpose, not all the travellers in South America, whose words carry weight, have turned a deaf or unappreciative ear to the bird music of the great bird continent: there are notable exceptions; from these I shall proceed to quote a few passages in support of my contention, beginning with Felix de Azara, a contemporary of Buffon, and concluding with the two most illustrious travellers of our own day who have visited South America — Wallace and Bates.

Of Darwin it need only be added that his words on the subject of the songs of birds are so few and of so little value that it is probable that this kind of natural melody gave him little or no pleasure. It is not unusual to meet with those who are absolutely indifferent to it, just as there are others who are not pleasurably moved by human music, vocal or instrumental.

In Spain Azara had been familiar from childhood with the songsters of Europe, and in Paraguay and La Plata he paid great attention to the language of the species he describes. In his ever fresh ‘Apuntamientos’ he says: “They are mistaken who think there are not as many and as good songsters here as in Europe”; and in the Introduction to the same work, referring to Buffon’s opinion concerning the inferiority of the American songsters, he writes: “But if a choir of singers were selected in the Old World, and compared with one of equal number gathered in Paraguay, I am not sure which would win the victory.” Of the house-wren of La Plata (‘Troglodytes furvus’) Azara says that its song is “in style comparable to that of the nightingale, although its phrases are not so delicate and expressive; nevertheless I count it among the first singers.” This opinion (with Daines Barrington’s misleading table in my mind) made me doubt the correctness of his judgment, or memory, the wren in question being an exceedingly cheerful singer; but when I came to hear the nightingale, about whose song I had formed so false an idea, it seemed to me that Azara was not far out. Nothing here surprised me more than the song of the British wren — a current of sharp high unshaded notes, so utterly different to the brilliant, joyous and varied lyric of his near relation in that distant land.

The melodious wren family counts many genera, rich in species, throughout the Neotropical region: and just as in that continent the thrushes have developed a more varied and beautiful music in the mocking-birds, so it has been with the family in such genera as ‘Thyothorus’ and ‘Cyphorhinus’, which include the celebrated flute-birds and organ-birds of tropical South America. D’Orbigny, in the ‘Voyage dans l’Amerique Meridionale’, speaks rapturously of one of these wrens, perched on a bough overhanging the torrent, where its rich melodious voice seemed in strange contrast to the melancholy aspect of its surroundings. Its voice, he says, which is not comparable to anything we have in Europe, exceeds that of the nightingale in volume and expression. Frequently it sounds like a melody rendered by a flute at a great distance; at other times its sweet and varied cadences are mingled with clear piercing tones and deep throat-notes. We have really no words, he concludes, adequate to express the effects of this song, heard in the midst of a nature so redundant, and of mountain scenery so wild and savage.

Mr. Simson, in his ‘Travels in the Wilds of Ecuador’, writes quite as enthusiastically of a species of ‘Cyphorhinus’ common in that country. It was the mellowest, most beautiful bird music he had ever heard; the song was not quite the same in all individuals, and in tone resembled the most sweet-sounding flute; the musical correctness of the notes was astonishing, and made one imagine the sounds to be produced by human agency.

Even more valuable is the testimony of Bates, one of the least impressible of the savants who have resided in tropical South America; yet his account of the bird is not less fascinating that that of D’Orbigny. “I frequently heard,” he writes, “in the neighbourhood of these huts the realejo, or organ-bird (Cyphorhinus cantans), the most remarkable songster by far of the Amazonian forest. When its singular notes strike the ear for the first time, the impression cannot be resisted that they are produced by a human voice. Some musical boy must be gathering fruits in the thicket, and is singing a few notes to cheer himself. The tones become more fluty and plaintive; they are now those of a flageolet, and notwithstanding the utter impossibility of the thing, one is for a moment convinced that someone is playing that instrument . . . . It is the only songster which makes an impression on the natives, who sometimes rest their paddles whilst travelling in their small canoes, along the shady by-paths, as if struck by the mysterious sound.” The sound must be wonderful indeed to produce such an effect!

To finish with quotations, the following sensible passage from Wallace’s ‘Amazon and Rio Negro’ should help us greatly in getting rid of an ancient error: “We are inclined to think that the general statement, that the birds of the tropics have a deficiency of song proportionate to their brilliancy of plumage, requires to be modified. Many of the brilliant birds of the tropics belong to families or groups which have no song; but our most brilliantly-coloured birds, as the goldfinch and canary, are not less musical, and there are many beautiful little birds here which are equally so. We heard notes resembling those of the blackbird and robin, and one bird gave forth three or four sweet plaintive notes that particularly attracted our attention; while many have peculiar cries, in which words may be traced by the fanciful, and which in the stillness of the forest have a very pleasing effect.”

To return, before concluding, to Azara’s remark about a choir of birds selected in Paraguay. It seems to me that when the best singers of any two districts have been compared and a verdict arrived at, something more remains to be said. The dulcet strains of a few of the most highly-esteemed songsters contribute only a part, by no means the largest part, of the pleasure we receive from the bird sounds of any district. All natural sounds produce agreeable sensations in the healthy: the patter of rain on the forest leaves, the murmur of the wind, the lowing of kine, the dash of waves on the beach: and so, coming to birds, the piercing tones of the sandpiper, and wail of the curlew; the cries of passing migrants; the cawing of rooks in the elms, and hooting of owls, and the startling scream of the jay in the wood, give us pleasure, scarcely less than that produced by the set song of any melodist. There is a charm in the infinite variety of bird sounds heard in the forests and marshes of southern South America, where birds are perhaps most abundant, exceeding that of many monotonously melodious voices; the listener would not willingly lose any of the indescribable sounds emitted by the smaller species, nor the screams and human-like calls, or solemn deep boomings and drummings of the larger kinds, or even the piercing shrieks which may be heard miles away. Those tremendous voices, that never break the quiet and almost silence of an English woodland, affect us like the sight of mountains, and torrents, and the sound of thunder and of billows breaking on the shore; we are amazed at the boundless energy and overflowing joy of wild bird life. The bird-language of an English wood or orchard, made up in most part of melodious tones, may be compared to a band composed entirely of small wind instruments with a limited range of sound, and which produces no storms of noise, eccentric flights, and violent contrasts, nor anything to startle the listener — a sweet but somewhat tame performance. the South American forest has more the character of an orchestra, in which a countless number of varied instruments take part in a performance in which there are many noisy discords, while the tender spiritual tones heard at intervals seem, by contrast, infinitely sweet and precious.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38