I know when spring has arrived. It is on that first, mild evening of the year when the male blackbird finds a high perch and sings his little heart out as if he was a messenger with most wonderful news for the whole world.

It is, by far, my favourite birdsong, and I have heard the nightingale, lark and song thrush. Complicated and unique to each bird it has been shown to include the regular sounds of the blackbird’s neighbourhood. Children playing, the conversation of other creatures and even the sound of passing traffic can be mimicked and included within this dusktime, avian sonata. Maybe it is the gritty reality and everydayness of his song that draws me, in the same way that I am drawn to soul rather than classical music.

I have been thinking about the blackbird’s song for some time, meditating on its complexity, and I have come to the conclusion that within it may lie the reason for that which makes us human beings.

I expect that once, hundreds of thousands of years ago, when our species inhabited the forests of Africa, that we were as limited in the sounds we could make as our cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos, still are today. But as the climate changed and the savannah grew, humans came out of the forest and began to explore and then inhabit the open spaces of the plains. Perhaps we found that the more variation there was in the notes of our calls to each other across the vast spaces of our new home the more possible it was to hear each other at a distance. There may be a remnant of this in yodelling and the vocal acrobatics of the people of Mali and elsewhere in the world.

At this point I can imagine the intelligence of evolution kicking in and the gradual invention of the larynx which in turn led to more complicated calls and songs. My guess is that eventually humans discovered that the voice box was capable of far more subtlety than just loud cries and that we began to speak to each other. Nothing complicated at first, but our brains responded by growing in size and capability in order to accommodate and enable our new skill.

I do not believe that humans are intelligent and animals are not. I think intelligence is on a scale and human intelligence has evolved far ahead of other creatures because of our gradual use of language and the evolution of the human brain to make this possible.

To me the clincher for my proposal is that humans have a widget in their brains that makes the sounds of people talking sound like talking. If we did not have this widget we would hear singing all the time as human speech is made up of different notes. Our brains evolved this ability quite late on in our evolution which says to me that we were originally singers not talkers.

Who know, perhaps one day, in the far distant future, blackbirds will have evolved in the same way from out of their song and any human beings that are still around will actually be able to understand the wonderful news the blackbirds keep trying to tell us.


FROM OUT OF THE SONG — 15 Comments

  1. Good heavens! When this post came up in my reader, I had to back up to make sure that I hadn’t made a mistake in thinking the rhapsody on the song of the blackbird came from you, MadPriest. I’m not at all accustomed to such lyrical flights of fancy in your posts.

    For the blackbirds in our yard, it’s all about the birdseed that Tom puts out.

    Bye-bye, MadPriest. Bye-bye, Blackbird. See you later.

  2. I’ve told people the reason I’m able to learn new languages is because I’m a singer and I understand language as tonal, like music. Who knew – OCICBW…

  3. that I hadn’t made a mistake in thinking the rhapsody on the song of the blackbird came from you

    I don’t understand. Are you accusing me of plagiarism?

  4. I’m not at all accustomed to such lyrical flights of fancy in your posts.

    I’d have thought that would do for an explanation, and I was joking around a bit. What you wrote was lovely, but you don’t often show that side of yourself.

  5. There are, in the oral tradition of the Vedic chants of south India around Kerala, a number of long chants not in any known language and not obviously related to any human language. They have been passed down as a very protected oral tradition for thousands and thousands of years. When they were computer analyzed it was found that they were based in bird songs, and they are thought to date back to the Bronze Age. It seems fitting that, as humans, our earliest known religious rites are copied from the songs of bird. (see more: )

  6. Thanks for this, MadPriest. I’ve always loved that Beatles song. I think it’s my favorite one.

    A lot of bird songs are lovely. I like the little bush tit’s twitter most of all. Tits come thru twice a day and feed off the little bugs on our anise patch.
    I try not to apply anthropomorphism to the birds or their songs. I do not believe they are singing for the joy of it. They are establishing their territory and looking for a mate. In the case of the bush tits they have one who looks out for the safety of the little flock. When one sings a particularly shrill sound meaning danger, all of them move down from the highest parts of the plants and get really quiet. That is the only time that I think of them doing something human-like. But lately, I see that protection behaviour as being more human than current humans.

    Oh, and I love your ‘toon!!!

  7. There are lots of things in life that humans do, not for the sake of it, but still enjoy themselves whilst doing it.

    My cat rolls on his back to get rid of excess hair, but my guess is what makes him do it is that he gets joy from it. Let’s face it if we didn’t have sex for the joy of it there would be no babies in the world.

  8. This is the song that Kurt, one of the gay guys on Glee, sang when his little pet bird, Pavarotti, suddenly died.

    And it was while he was singing this that Blaine, another gay guy, realized that he was enamored with Kurt. Which led to their first onscreen kiss.

    It was very natural. And romantic in a small way.