A personal response to Daines Barrington’s Experiments and Observations on Birdsong (1773).

I recently read a letter written by the ornithologist Daines Barrington, which he submitted to the Royal Society in 1773 [1]. I had actually been tracking down the original quotation for Barrington’s bizarre attitude towards cuckoo calls (of which, later), but instead stumbled on this extraordinary snapshot of early birdsong scientific insights and, presumably, cutting edge research from about 250 years ago.

But, before I allowed myself to chuckle too much at the lack of scientific rigour, or the confident assumptions based on so few observations, or the sloppy referencing, I reminded myself that these ‘Experiments and Observations on the Singing of Birds’, were extraordinary in themselves, precisely because there were no pre-existing shoulders of ornithological giants on which to climb. This was a science in its infancy. In it, Barrington describes genuinely fascinating experiments involving successfully training birds the songs of different species. I was hooked.

But the first thing that struck me, I have to confess, was not so much the science, but the font. Reading a scanned copy of the original publication, I was instantly transported into a world in which sometimes the letter ‘s’ appeared much more like our letter ‘f’, rendering multiple amusing mis-readings in my mind. For example, in his opening paragraph, Daines Barrington explains that:

“As the experiments and obfervations I mean to lay before the Royal Society relate to the finging of birds, which is a fubject that hath never before been fcientifIcally treated of, it may not be improper to prefix an explanation of fome uncommon terms, which I fhall be under a neceffity of coining.” [p.240].

I knew from the outset that this read wasn’t going to be for the faint-hearted. Forever, in my mind, Barrington had a lisp.

Here are some of the genuinely interesting experiments Barrington undertook, by placing caged birds near each other, and his observations:

  • He educated nestling cock linnets with the songs of skylarks, woodlarks and titlarks, and each one learned the song of its instructor rather than singing a linnet’s song.
  • He educated a nestling sparrow with other birdsongs, and it learned to sing snatches of linnet and goldfinch. [A sparrow? Really? Surely sparrows just chirp?].
  • A robin learned a nightingale song, while another robin learned a skylark song taught by a linnet that had been tutored by a skylark.
  • He observed a linnet speak the words ‘pretty boy’, and a goldfinch singing the song of a wren, both birds having been taken from the nest when only a few days old and raised with these other influences in their environment.

His understandable scientific conclusions to these experiments were that birdsong is not innate and is dependent ‘entirely on the master under which they are bred’ [p.252]. This understanding has been recently superseded by fascinating research that birdsong has both innate and learned components (Nature’s Music – edited Peter Marler).

Birds learning the songs of other birds. Yes, I recently heard (and saw) a starling outside my house singing the song a blackbird had sung earlier that morning. Lots of birds mimic like this, in fact. But deliberately educating birds in the songs of other birds? That was different.

Barrington also refers to bird owners deliberately teaching their pets musical tunes, by playing to them. As a composer and musician who records music, I was interested to learn that the word ‘recording’ may have been coined by bird-catchers to describe the stage when a nestling bird learns to sing its song. Barrington wonders whether the word is derived from the musical instrument ‘formerly used in England, called a recorder’, which ‘seems to have been a species of flute, and was probably used to teach young birds to pipe tunes’, and that it had a ‘lesser and greater bore, both above and below’ and also ‘fipple’ mouth piece [p.249]. Yep. That sounds like a recorder. The description ‘formerly used in England’ is interesting in itself. The fact that it needed to be described shows just how far it had fallen into disuse. The archetypal instrument of the Renaissance and Baroque era, it was rarely used in the Classical and Romantic era. Presumably, Barrington was not familiar with ‘The Bird Fancyer’s Delight’, published in 1717, a volume containing tunes designed to teach one’s pet bird to sing, by playing them on the smallest recorder, a sopranino. (In my next blog, I’m going to have a go at playing some of them.)

Some of his comments are merely rather odd, and show how easily we take for granted our ability to time something. For example, he describes the length of a bird’s song as ‘the same interval with a musical bar of four crotchets in an adagio movement, so whilst a pendulum swings four seconds’ [ p.252]. So, about four seconds long, then.

Other comments appear ludicrous. For example, musically, he acknowledges that most birdsong cannot be notated in traditional notation (with the notable exception of the cuckoo), since it’s mostly too fast, too high, and the musical intervals they use don’t align with our Western semitone system. However, he then deviates from this eminently sensible approach to assert that birds all sing in the same key, for the following reason: because it doesn’t sound disagreeable when they all sing together, so the rules of harmony are not being violated, so they must be in the same key. With the help of an experienced harpsichord tuner, who had a good ear for remembering pitches, Barrington pronounced that birds sang in the key of G minor, and that our (Western) musical intervals are originally borrowed from birdsong, because so many musical compositions are in minor keys. I don’t even know where to begin with this. So, I’ll just leave it there.

Regarding the call of a cuckoo, he asserts that the musical interval between the two notes is a minor third, and that composers who represent cuckoos in their music with a major third had not troubled themselves ‘with accuracy in imitating these notes’ [p. 269]. It’s easy to mock, but we must remember that Barrington didn’t have access to the xeno-canto website, where he could have expanded his sample size of one cuckoo call to over a thousand examples. He then would have noticed calls of up to a perfect fourth.

He also offers a delightfully subjective comparison between the merits of the songs of various British birds, judged in terms of categories such as ‘mellowness of tone’ and ‘sprightly notes’. Here it is:

He later experimented by asking a flute player to have a go at playing a piece of noted nightingale music (by Kircher, in 1650) but concluded the reason it didn’t sound like a nightingale was because of the note durations being hard to replicate. (Yep, that was why.)

His paper even notes the different regional dialects noted by bird-catchers between goldfinches, chaffinches and nightingales.

But there is definitely an uncomfortable side to this paper, where his observations are at odds with our cultural environmental values, and leave us feeling outright uneasy. For example, Barrington asserts that Londoners are better at identifying birdsong than people who live in the countryside, because country dwellers only get birdsong about two months of the year, when they all sing together at once (in the wild), whereas Londoners hear each bird distinctly in their homes or shops (that is, in cages), and that caged birds often sing ten months of the year. He mentions in passing that wrens rarely live long in a cage. He describes how nightingales become ‘sulky’ when first confined to a cage, and need to be force-fed otherwise they stop eating, and their wings have to be tied ‘to prevent his killing himself against the top or sides of the cage’ [p.264].

To us, the mere idea of a caged wild bird now feels wrong, as does the profession of ‘bird-catcher’, (someone who gathers birds from the wild, to sell) – as well being illegal. The roaring trade he mentions in imported birds from Asia, Africa and America, is uncomfortable stuff, especially with his assertions that these birds cannot nevertheless be compared to their ‘superior’ European counterparts. There are also accounts of birds being routinely tortured in order to achieve greater beauty in their songs, in order to win contests.

But we can’t be too self-righteous about our current-day approach to birds. Who knows how scientists will be judging us in 250 years time for the devastating declines in bird populations being clocked up right now?

  1. Experiments and observations on the singing of birds, by the Hon. Daines Barrington, Vice Pres. R. S. In a letter to Mathew Maty, M.D. Sec. R.S. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstl.1773.0031

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