Anthropology & Ornithology Musings

It’s interesting to me that so many ancient cultures named birds by their sound, and I think it’s related to why birds are so relatively easy to sample today: they make noise, and somewhat predictably! When we do point counts, most species are detected aurally. So, in the soundscape, it would have made sense for ancient people to try to mimic the sound when describing what’s around them to others, or discuss the source of their curiosity. Chances are, someone else in the tribe heard the same sound, and by going back and mimicking it you can find a common ground. After all, in many cases you may not see the bird, but more likely you’d hear it. I don’t know much about linguistics, but early on, I’m guessing there weren’t a lot of “filler words” we have today. For example, it wouldn’t be “you know that coo-coo-coo sound?” so much as it might just be “coo-coo-coo” with gesture and expression to indicate curiosity. An onomatopoeic name was probably in many cases a more reliable handle to stoke recognition than a visual description, because probably more people heard the bird regularly than necessarily saw it. Add on to that the lack of optics to zoom in on a bird that might be hiding high up!

I’m sure curiosity encouraged ancient people to kill the source of the sound to see it up close (and investigate its uses), a tradition carried on by Audubon. Once the name was given to the bird and thus commonality was achieved for the purpose of communication, why change it? Related, why reference a characteristic in the name (e.g. color) that most who encounter the bird may never observe? What struck me, though, was how many ancient roots of names reference birds we can see well with the naked eye (e.g. heron), and thus is somewhat the impetus for this blog post. Certainly plenty of names reference physical characteristics, but the contrast interested me between how I perceive and recognize a bird like an egret. I’ve known what that was since I was a child, recognize it visually, and never knew what it sounded like until I took ornithology lab and listened to a recording CD. Yet, its name derives from a sound. To be fair, and non-trivially to this post, I also had the aid of visuals (i.e. a bird guide) before I saw one and recognized it, matching it to a picture and thus a name. How would I have perceived it differently encountering it in the wild sans binoculars, with an interest in describing it to people who may or may not have seen it? Also, that type of observation would have likely been longer, maybe allowing more time for it to vocalize, and thus have the vocalization be a part of my observational experience. I may have been surprised by the quality of the sound, and thus want to imitate it.

On that note, perhaps also the root is less direct or utilitarian. Back in 2010, I remember a conversation with my field tech spurred by our bored mimicry of bird sounds around us. We knew the calls and the species attached, but that didn’t stop of us from enjoying trying to make the sounds ourselves. He commented that it’s “human nature” to try to mimic environmental sounds, and I thought that was interesting. Maybe ancient onomatopoeic names sprung from a mix of entertainment, curiosity and the need for mnemonic regarding the surrounding environment.

Birds meant a lot of things to ancient cultures, just as they do to us today: food, adornment, phenology, lore, art, aesthetic, etc. So, the soundscape could indicate a variety of things, from basic needs met to the presence of e.g. a spirit. In that sense, I think it would do us (meaning birders) well to sort of deconstruct our typical understanding of the avian soundscape: we listen for birds to identify them. While many ancient cultures indeed mapped vocalizations to species (at least eventually), I wonder how important it was that a sound indicated the presence of a certain species (i.e. not a sought-after game species), as opposed to a changing of the seasons.┬áMany naturalists are likewise well aware of certain bird songs as phenological indicators, not only meaning the arrival of migrants but perhaps changes in resident behavior. The concept I’m attempting to describe, and thus questions I’m trying to form are whether the presence of a bird vocalization was more important, or noticed a.) than in our modern western cultural repertoire and b.) than the need for visual linkage to the source of the sound.

I think there’s a strong case for the former: while e.g. North American people of western culture today often recognize raucous, simple, common or interesting bird vocalizations, there would have been more survival incentive (and more cultural reference) for ancient people to recognize a wider suite of bird vocalizations. With respect to the latter, where hobby identification was possibly not often a motivator to learn the sources of more bird songs (whereas today in modern European-derived cultures perhaps the sole motivator), were ancient people better auditory learners? Today, most people in universities tend to identify as visual learners, but is it because we have more practice learning visually? Often in the U.S., we start with as babies with toys, TV, and also a generally controlled soundscape where most sounds aren’t differentiated by good vs. bad in terms of survival. Children of ancient cultures would have had a less controlled soundscape where environmental sounds meant more, and also reading/writing was not the most common form of communication. Before what we now know as the era of literacy, information was transmitted through generations by spoken word. So, I would think being a good auditory learner would have been especially important, which drives the bigger question: what determines what kind of learner we are?

I remember thinking in high school “I can’t imagine how hard it would be to learn bird calls/songs.” To be fair, I also never took up musical hobbies, so there was very little I knew about distinguishing and describing sounds that couldn’t be turned into words (besides vocal mimicry, which brings this post full circle). Am I especially ill-adept, or would many of my peers agree before trying to learn bird sounds? I think it’s possible we’ve just become disconnected from natural soundscapes and the need to know about them, through both physical walls and what now commands our attention.