Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The human imitation of bird sound

The sounds of the natural world have an incredible way of teleporting us. If we woke up blindfolded suddenly in an unknown place, we can probably tell night from day and the trained ear could tell the habitat, the vegetation and probably the continent. The richness of a habitat is apparently easily detected just by hearing or examining the richness of natural sounds. A place that has evolved undisturbed has a wide usage in time and space; and a wide range of frequencies. The intrusive sounds of humans and their creations alter all that. The ugliness of being in a beautiful landscape scarred by the drifting sounds from loudspeakers is one that is easily felt in places like India but the pain is felt by very few. It however destroys the peace of many other organisms, destroying their ability to find prey, mark territories and find mates.

Gorst's promotional brochure from the University of Iowa archives
This teleportation ability has been used by some educators of the natural world and one of them was the American bird educator Charles Gorst.  He used his training in ornithology and preaching to spread a wonder for birds coupled with whistling skills that have been recorded for posterity (see the recordings at the end of the Wikipedia article on Gorst). It is especially incredible that Gorst made a living out of this. I am quite sure his shows must have been very impressive especially to young audiences, I remember the impact a plastic record of the "songs of the humpback whale" (1979) distributed as a sleeve with an issue of the National Geographic had on me. We know remarkably little about Gorst or indeed several others who were involved in the use of mimicry to transport their audience while also educating them about the natural world. There were also many others including Gilbert Girard (see his visiting card), Joe Belmont, Percy Edwards (David Attenborough had a radio show on him but hearing this is browser dependent), "Edward Avis" (YouTube), and Alec Shaw who seem to have made a living but mostly from entertaining their audiences rather than using it for educational purposes. There appears to have been a profession of siffleur (from French) and there still are international whistling competitions but all this is quite different from what in the past must have been a skill for survival. We know a bit from hunting communities and their use of animal imitations including the recent research on the honeyguide and the Yao people who talk to them. All this has of course been written about and the naturalist and film-maker Jeffrey Boswall wrote a very interesting piece on the human imitation of birds in 1998 that is worthy of reading (link at the end).

Alec Shaw performing

Surprisingly, there is a recent book on the topic - Eco-sonic media (2015) by Jacob Smith - that has an excellent socio-historical analysis. It appears that early recording technology did especially well in capturing high pitched tones from whistling that made whistled records especially popular among audiences. Smith notes that mixing whistled imitations with music was something that may have been pioneered by George Washington Johnson, the first African American artist to sell records. Another analysis of how labours from around the world contributed to sounds is about shellac records (78 RPM). Shellac was produced by insects, processed in colonial India and exported to the US where these bird records were sold and they were played using spring-wound phonographs with wooden horns that made use of cactus needle styluses. The author calls them "Green Discs" but nothing can of course be greener than the originals of the natural world.

Further reading (and listening)