Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bird stories

Sometimes, it's hard to decide whether certain bird stories are genuine. David Attenborough presents the amazing lyre bird, which mimics the calls of other birds in this video clip from The Life of Birds.

I'm inclined to ask whether the bits about imitating camera shutters, car alarms and chainsaws are indeed authentic.

A week or so ago, on French TV, I saw a documentary about a splendid partridge that was totally and amazingly bonded to a friendly fellow living out in the French countryside. The commentator told us that this fellow had walked outside one morning and come upon a stray partridge, which promptly ran towards him... and then never wanted to leave him. The images were indeed spectacular. The partridge would even go boating with the fellow on his private carp pond. But there was a moment of doubt when I learned that the fellow actually reared all kinds of exotic fowls as a hobby. It soon dawned on me that, clearly, this fellow had arranged things so that he would be the first being to be seen by a newly-hatched partridge, who would be bonded to him in a well-known fashion.

I was furious to think that this renowned French TV series would have joined up with the partridge fellow in an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of spectators, with their ridiculous tale of a kind of mysterious love affair between a partridge and a human being. I feel like saying: "Go tell that to the birds!"


  1. Williams I can give you an absolute assurance that the mimicked sounds are indeed authentic.

  2. In that case, they're amazing. I'm trying to imagine the cerebral and vocal processes that would enable a bird to memorize and then reproduce specific audio signals. Maybe their brain exploits massively the so-called mirror neurons that have become the specialty of my friend Michael Arbib at the University of Southern California. In that case, a lyre bird might well be using the same genes that enable a human child to master language. But what sort of vocal chords must it have in order to produce the noise of a chainsaw, which is far more sophisticated than a simple whistle? I guess I'm asking a variant of the question: How and why do kookaburras laugh?

  3. My husband would whistle a very distinctive melody when he turned into the lane that lead to our house. Our dog would sit by the door every evening, waiting for that whistle as the signal to start tunning towards his master.

    One day, hours before my husband was supposed to be home, our dog started to bark, wanting to be let out the door. Turned out that a blackbird had learned to imitate that certain whistle, confusing both me and the dog.