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The Language of Birds

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Mockingbirds, by John James Audubon. Color engraving by R. Havell, after drawing by John J. Audubon. Illustration in The Birds of America by John James Audubon. London, 1827-1838.

John James Audubon was born on April 26, 1785 in what is now Haiti. His passion for North American wild birds fostered an ongoing interest in birds and bird conservation in the United States. But, of course, interest in birds and birdsong is as old as humankind. This essay will look at some of the ways that birdsong is reflected in the many folk traditions of North America with examples from the Library’s collections.

Imitating the sounds of birds has practical use for hunters, who may whistle, call, or use mechanical bird calls in order to flush game.  The owl hooter, pictured, is an interesting example of a handmade bird call device. This one was made by West Virginia hunter Woody Boggs.  Its purpose is not to call owls, but to locate turkeys.  Barred owls and other large owls are enemies of turkeys, as they will kill chicks and young birds.  Roosting male turkeys will answer a barred owl call of “who cooks for you?” with a defensive gobble, and this behavior is used by hunters.  Hooting by using clasped hands as a low whistle will also work, but handmade devices can create a more accurate sound of a barred owl. In this recording of ethnographer Mary Hufford and Ivan Jerrell another device that makes a turkey call is used to try to get birds to answer the call. According to Jerrell, the owl hoot works best at dawn and dusk, while in mid-day the turkey call is more likely to work. If you listen closely you will hear a turkey in the distance answering the call. Depending on the behavior of the bird species, calls that make the sound of the bird being hunted may lure birds to the hunter or cause them to make the call in return.

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Owl hooter made by Woody Boggs. Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008). Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler, Stickney, West Virginia, 1997.

Birds and their songs also have a place in the hunting lore of American Indians.  The Creek and the Seminole societies include a Horned Owl Society. The songs of the various societies may be performed for dances preceding hunting.  This recording is the “Horned Owl Song” from the Seminoles of Florida, sung by John Josh and recorded by Carita Doggett Corse in 1940.1

Birders as well as hunters use various devices to call birds and either find their locations or lure them closer. The ancient art of whistling is useful for this purpose. A small bird call diaphragm held in the mouth is often used to create more complex calls.  Whistling was popular on the stage and in music in the early twentieth century.  Professional whistlers performed both melodies and bird calls along with performers of popular songs and opera.  Charles Kellog, a master of the art of bird whistling, recorded “The Bird Chorus,” in 1919, whistling different calls along with at least one recording of himself whistling to create the overlapping songs of birds as they might be heard in the forest — a feat that would easily be achieved by mixing digital tracks today but was rarely attempted at the time of this recording.

The importance of human relationships with birds is found in myth and spirituality as well as sport.  The Menominee have numerous songs and stories about the culture hero Manabus, who shaped much of the world as we know it.  In “Manabus Tells the Ducks to Shut Their Eyes,” sung by Louis Pigeon and recorded by Frances Densmore in 1925, we learn that Manabus tricked water birds into dancing to his singing with their eyes closed so that he could wring their necks one by one in order to make a feast for himself.  One bird peeked, a grebe (or a loon), and warned the other birds so that they all flew off.  Manabus punished the grebe by giving him red eyes, and that is why grebes have red eyes to this day. 2

In Christian symbolism the dove is often used to represent the Holy Spirit, but in Spanish symbolism it may also represent the Virgin Mary. In this household hymn collected by Juan Rael in New Mexico in 1940, “Buenos días, Paloma Blanca,” singer Ricardo Archuleta greets the morning by addressing the Virgin with:

“Good morning, White Dove,
today I come to greet you,
greeting your beauty
in your celestial kingdom!” (first verse)

Words are often heard in the songs of birds by imaginative human listeners. The whip-poor-will, kildeer, and bob white are examples of birds named for what English speakers hear in their songs.  In folksongs, birds are often imagined to understand our speech and carry messages. The crane has been a symbolic bird among Armenians since ancient times. As a migratory bird, they may be asked for news of home by travelers or immigrants — and such interactions are found in songs. We do not have a translation of this moving song, sung by Vartan S. Shapazian and recorded by Sidney Robertson Cowell in California in 1939, but the singer translated the title as “Dear Crane,” so we know it is addressed to the crane: “Groong Jan.”3  In a Portuguese song recorded by Cowell, “Fado dos Passarinhos,” sung by Alice Lemos Avila of Oakland, California, a swallow is asked to carry a message and an embrace to a lover (a transcription and translation prepared by the singer is available). Wilber Roberts, an Anglo-Bahamian living in Florida, performs a song he learned in the Bahamas, “I Heard a Sweet Robin,” for folklorist Stetson Kennedy in 1940. The robin explains that her song, “cold water, cold water,” is a temperance message.  In the Spanish song “El tecolotito,” recorded by Juan Rael, Ricardo Archuleta sings of an little owl bringing the news of a lost love. After he delivers his message he begs for food. The bird’s message is given in a combination of words and hooting. There are many versions of this song, with the little owl bringing different messages.

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Tim Hodgson performing bird songs on the fiddle as he plays the tune “Listen to the Mocking Bird,” with the Bar J Wranglers at the Library of Congress, 2008.

Sometimes the song lyrics are intended to be the words of a bird, rather than a message for humans. “La Pájara Pinta,” here sung by Cruz Losada in 1939, is a favorite children’s song in Spanish. In it a spotted bird contemplates finding a mate to cuddle and kiss.  

The fashionable use of bird imitations in popular music began disappearing in the mid-twentieth century. But one remnant of it survives.  A favorite song of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was “Listen to the Mocking Bird” [sic] by Septimus Winner (1855). This 1923 version on Victor sung by Olive Kline and Lambert Murphy  even includes a whistled accompaniment performed by Margaret McKee and Uintah Masterman.  Since the mockingbird mimics other bird calls, a wide range of bird calls can be used to mimic its song. The tune entered old-time and bluegrass music as a fiddle piece designed to show off the fiddler’s skill at producing bird songs within the melody, and there it continues to prosper.  An excellent example is performed by Tim Hodgson of the Bar J Wranglers, at the Library of Congress in 2008 (the piece begins at about 28 minutes into the video).

Profound connections between birds and humans can be found in many collections of American folklife. Using the resource links at the bottom of this article, you will find many more recordings of songs related to birds. Searching on “birds” will only find some of them, so also try the names of the birds you wish to find.

Notes

1. For more about Seminole songs, see the “Seminole and Miccosukee Song” article in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.

2. For more on this topic, see the “Menominee Song” article in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.

3. In contemporary Armenian, the word for crane is transliterated from the Armenian to the Roman alphabet as “krunk” rather than “groong,” which was used at the time this recording was made.

Resources

California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties presents the recordings Sidney Robertson Cowell made in California.

Florida Folklife and the WPA Collections, 1937-1942. Additional recordings of Seminole songs may be found in this collection.

Hall, Stephanie, “‘A Man Who Could Outrun the Shot’ and Other Hunting Stories,” in Folklife Today, November 17, 2014

Hispano Music and Culture of the Northern Rio Grande: The Juan B. Rael Collection.

National Jukebox: Historic Recordings from the Library of Congress, Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation. Recordings published by the Victor Talking Machine Company between 1900 and 1925. (Search on “birds” or the names of birds. The results may include popular songs, opera, traditional songs, and bird call recordings.)

Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia, presents items from The Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008).

Winick, Stephen, “Turkey in the Straw,” in Folklife Today, May 15, 2014.

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