We know we can teach birds to talk and sing. But were birds ever used as primordial, feathered music recorders? Did we use them to bring popular music into our homes on command before the advent of the phonograph, the gramophone and radio?
In this Radio 4 documentary, produced by Neil McCarthy, I take this question to biologists, bird keepers, musicians and others and revealing some surprising curiosities in the archives — oddities that should fascinate anyone with an interest in birdsong, music or early sound recording.
This radio piece is packed with some of my favourite bird training ephemera, including 1700s dance tunes and some wonderful 1950s bird training records. Human contributors include ornithologist Geoff Sample, poet Katrina Porteous, behavioural ecologist Tim Birkhead, composer Aleks Kolkowski and Yorkshire’s ‘Champion of Champion’ roller canary fancyer Ken Westmorland.
Hanging in The Louvre, this painting by Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin shows a woman playing a serinette or bird organ.
The serinette has short, high-pitched pipes so it plays tunes in the same register as birdsong when you turn the handle. It was used as an automatic alternative to wind instruments such as recorder or flageolet. Popular in France throughout the eighteenth century, the serinette was used to play tunes to birds to encourage or train them to sing (‘serin’ is French for canary).
In this painting, we can see the woman smiling at her caged birds, presumably because they were singing. But there’s a mystery: were the birds simply chirping along, with their own song? Or were they mimicking the tune of the serinette?
A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to see a serinette in the Musée de la Musique Mécanique, Les Gets, France. You can clearly see the pins which push up levers, opening pipe valves, as the barrel turns. The serinette can play several tunes which were listed on the lid. Tunes are selected by moving the barrel slightly to the left or right — this engages different sets of pins.
Ken WESTMORLAND’S ROLLER CANARIES
Ken’s roller canaries are bred for their song, not their colour. Rather than singing the high-pitched trills and cheeps that attract female canaries in the wild, these birds have been bred over many generations to make soothing, low-pitched purring sounds and clucks. The roller canary makes most of these distinctive sounds with its beak closed. One element of its song, the glock, is said to be like the sound of water slopping in a bucket.
In the show, you hear Ken explaining that his birds’ talents are largely down to genetics. His prize specimens are particularly good at learning roller sounds. In conversation, Tim Birkhead agreed that Ken, in breeding his prize birds, has been selecting the best students of these strange sounds. Morphologically, there’s nothing to distinguish Ken’s birds from other captive-bred canaries – it’s all down to their ability to learn roller song.
THE BIRD FANCYER’S DELIGHT
Throughout the show, you can hear my short renditions of these tunes from 1717, published by Richard Meares and his rival John Walsh. Each tune is named after a particular bird and was written to be taught to the bird in question. The bullfinch has more tunes than any other, adding some credibility to the claim that these were tunes to be taught to birds – bullfinches are known to be particularly good students of human song. You can hear a bullfinch whistling a German folksong in the show.
Some of the pieces are performed on the sopranino, a tiny recorder that pitches the tunes in a closer register to birdsong. The rest are performed on a treble recorder which is an octave lower and easier on the ears. As these tunes are used as incidental music, I’ve performed them without the customary repeats. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these tunes were almost certainly played on a bird flageolet, a relative of the recorder which was very high in pitch.
There is a general consensus that these tunes were too long and complex to be taught to birds, although in conversation, Tim Birkhead and I agreed it would be fascinating play a tune on a sopranino to a bird several times a day, every day, and see if he could learn it. Early experiments with these tunes, by bird expert Bill Thorpe in the 1950s, presented birds with tape recorded versions of the songs. But songbirds may learn better from a live tutor who presents songs in a social context (Baptista and Petrinovich, 1984).
Here, I play a selection of melodies from the Bird Fancyer’s Delight:
VIRGINIA BELMONT’S FAMOUS SINGING AND TALKING BIRDS
A former high kicker from The Ziegfeld Follies, Virginia was inspired to try bird training when she met Joseph Belmont in the early 1930s. Joseph was a ‘featured act’ in Ziegfeld’s show, where he would perform a Canary Opera with his school of singing birds.
Virginia married Joseph and opened a bird shop in the roof gardens of the dazzling Rockerfeller Center, New York, in 1935 where she regularly performed with her own birds. She also toured America with her famous talking Mynah Birds, AC, DC and TV, sponsored by the electricity company Westinghouse. This is the company who also made the wonderful smoking, talking robot Electro who appeared in the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
At the end of the show, you can hear Virginia’s birds duetting with a live tenor. They are chirping along, in their own song, rather than mimicking the tenor’s tune.
Notes from Virginia’s own record sleeve (c1960):
“Love of life – animals – birds – people – has kept this vibrant and charming human being almost decades younger than her age (now in her 65th year). She has a gift of magic with people and pets. They feel her warmth and enthusiasm immediately when in her presence, and she has an uncanny ability to heal them when they come to her”.
Hear more of Virginia’s birds and music on the wfmu.org archive.
TRAIN YOUR BIRD IN STEREO
This minimalist masterpiece from 1958 claims to harness the power of stereo recording – a new technology at the time – to increase the bird’s attention span and improve learning. Side one explains how to use the record and make the most of your ‘pet potential’. Side two is the training session itself – a trippy succession of endlessly repeating phrases, delivered from alternate sides of the stereo field. Side two was meant to be played in a darkened room ‘after winning your pet’s friendship and admiration’, through the taming tips on side one.
Published on the Americana label, Train your Bird in Stereo was devised and recorded by Henry J Bates and Robert L Busenbarn, a pair of bird fanciers who set up a bird farm together in 1952. Bates and Busenbarn claimed their vocal lessons were effective with parakeets, cockatiels, mynah birds, macaws, cockatoos, Amazons and ‘all talking birds’.
Hear Train your Bird in Stereo on the wfmu.org archive.
Sparkie Williams, Champion Talking Budgie, 1958, in conversation with Philip Marsden, the ‘TV Budgie Man’.
THE LARK ASCENDING
Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1920
This quasi-improvisatory, pentatonic piece for violin and orchestra evokes skylark song and the soaring flight of this British songbird. Williams’ inspiration was the George Meredeth poem To a Skylark. According to popular legend, Williams was arrested when he was spotted jotting down this piece while watching troop ships out at sea, at the outbreak of the First World War – a young boy had seen him scribbling and assumed he was some kind of spy.
In this documentary, this piece plays under Katrina Porteous’ reading of her own poem Skylark.
A performance of The Lark Ascending by Nicola Benedetti with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton:
MUSIC FOR ORGAN – OLIVIER MESSAIEN
Messiaen expected to be remembered as a transcriber of birdsong as much as a composer. Many of his works feature motifs transcribed directly from birds, which he slowed down to incorporate in his music. When Alex Kolkowski talks about the painting by Chardin, at the beginning of the show, you can hear some of Messiaen’s bird-inspired organ music under our conversation.
Here’s a charming video of Messiaen and pianist Yvonne Loriod, showing how his music is inspired by birdsong.
This recording of a bullfinch trained to sing a German folktune can be found on the British Library CD Bird Mimicry (2006). Also on this CD is the sound of a jay imitating a computer modem, a starling making the sounds of a chicken and a bowerbird mimicking workers sawing wood and hammering. There’s also a brief appearance from Newcastle’s finest: Sparkie Williams, champion talking budgie 1958.
MECHANICAL LANDSCAPE WITH BIRD
Aleksander Kolkowski, 2002
Kolkowski wrote music in imitation of canaries which was played to a group of canaries every day, just like the music in the original Bird Fancyer’s Delight. The music was played on a new serinette, designed and built by Martin Riches. The canaries were reared and trained by Helmut Mossmann.
Eventually, the canaries were brought into the concert hall where they duetted with human musicians playing Stroh violins. Fashionable in the early twentieth century, Stroh violins had phonograph-like horns, rather than a violin body, to amplify the sound of their strings. Some of the canaries’ performance was recorded on their successor, The Edison phonograph.
THE MECHANICAL NIGHTINGALE
I composed these short snatches of incidental music in 2011 in response to some of the themes of the show – in particular the story of the Emperor and the Nightingale, an allegorical tale from Hans Christian Anderson which Katrina Porteous tells in the show.
In this music you can hear slowed-down nightingale song, as sung by the nightingale then imitated by a ‘mechanical nightingale’ – my robotic carillon. I was inspired to experiment with slowed-down birdsong after my conversation with Geoff Sample. Towards the end of the show, Geoff plays skylark song and slows it down 14 times, revealing its great complexity and musicality.
Treatises for teaching birds to sing and talk were written from the early eighteenth and were in fashion until the phonograph came along at the end of the nineteenth century. Here are a couple of examples – I’ve transcribed these from originals in the British Library.
These transcripts mention the cruel practice of ‘stopping’ – depriving a bird of food and light to give the impression that spring is starting later in the year. Many songbirds come into their song at the onset of spring so stopping could be used to make birds sing out of season. Stopped birds were used as tutors for next year’s birds – and to lure migrating birds into bird catchers’ clapnets.
The New and Complete Bird-Fancyer; or Bird-Fancyer’s Recreation and Delight. Containing the Newest and Very Best Instructions for Catching, Taking, Feeding, Rearing, &c. all the Various Sorts of Song-Birds, particularly Nightingales, Larks, Goldfinches, Bullfinches, Robins, Canary-Birds, Black-birds, Thrushes, Starlings, Linnets, &c. &c. Including, among other particulars, A full Account of all their several Distempers, and the best Methods of curing them. Likewise the surest Means of distinguishing the COCK from the HEN, and of learning them to sing to the greatest Perfection. Together with Many other useful Particulars relative to Singing Birds, too numerous to mention in a Title-Page.
The whole Revised, Corrected, and Improved, By Mr. William Thompson, Late Gardener to the Duke of ANCASTER (sic), and Author of New Gardeners Calendar; who has made the Management of Birds his favourite Study upwards of Twenty Years.
Assisted by the most eminent Fanciers.
Embellished with a beautiful Frontispiece, elegantly designed and executed.
Printed for Alex. Hogg, at the Original King’s Arms, No. 16, Pater-Noster-Row
[Price only one shilling]
No well executed work of this kind having yet appeared, treating wholly of Singing-Birds, we here present the Public with one, compiled from our own observations, and confirmed by the experience of others, who have been curious in the breeding and bringing up of Singing-Birds. And
as nothing magnifies and sets forth the power of the Supreme Being more than these pretty harmless animals, whether we reflect on their velocity, beauty, or the variegated colours of their feathers, so, in every respect they raise infinite delight and satisfaction to their keepers, and sweetly recompence their trouble and charge in bringing them up, by their pleasant harmony. We enjoy in our houses or aviaries, all the melody of the woods. …
The stopping of a bird is of greatest use to the bird-catchers, and likewise such as would have them a sweet song, you must let your bird, before you stop him, be a year old or better, and keep him in a back cage, so that he may be able to find his victuals in the dark; you may put him in a stop about the middle of May. The nature of a Stop is, to have a case made fit for the purpose, then put in your birds and leave the door open till you are satisfied they have found their meat and water, then darken them by degrees ‘till they are quite dark, and when you see they have found their meat and water then cover them with a blanket or any thick cloth that is warm, keeping them very hot; you may look at them, once in two or three days, give them fresh water, and blow their seeds:
It is not best to clean their cages above once a month, by reason the hotness of their dung forces them to moult. You should take a bit of stick or knife, to keep their dung down, to prevent dirtying their feathers, and then let them continue in this close stop for three months, by which time they will be moulted off, then open them a little and a little by degrees; take off the blanket first, and let them stand so three or four days, then open the door a little way, then take them out and clean their cages, after that put them in again with the door half open for two or three days longer, then take them out and put them in a warm place, so that they come to the air by degrees; put them a little beet-leaf and liquourice in the water, this with a blade of saffron, which is a very good thing, when he is drawn of a stop. After you have drawn them out of a stop, you will find them to sing still more and more, so that they will be for the bird-catcher’s use, or to learn any other birds their song; those birds will continue in song ‘till about Christmas, or after, by which time most young birds are come to their song.
The bird-branchers are very plentiful to be catched in June, July, or August, and likewise flight-birds about Michaelmas in great quantities: I have known forty of fifty dozen catched in one day with clap-nets. …
This is a very fine bird both for its beauty and learning songs, but his natural one is very indifferent. He may be learned to pipe almost any tune at command, you may also learn him to talk. Some are tought to speak and whistle at command; and when they have once got a tune, they seldom forget it, not even if they hand amongst other birds. They are very valuable, if well brought up, and are sometimes sold for nine or ten guineas a bird. …
You may feed them and bring them up the same way as you do a Linnet, only when they feed themselves, give them more canary-feed than a Linnet. Generally give them the better half canary-feed, and the rest rape; and if you find them out of order, give them a little fine hemp-feed, and a little saffron in the water; give them likewise a little Woodlark’s victuals, the same as you would do a Linnet. Take them out when about twelve or fourteen days old; when kept four or five days, or a week, you may begin to pipe, whistle, or talk to them what you have a mind they should learn. A gentleman that piped to one from a fortnight old to two months, and then being obliged to leave his bird and go into the country for six months, before he returned his bird whistled nearly three parts of the tune, notwithstanding he had no-body to pipe or tune to him in his absence. …
These birds we formerly had brought from the Canaries, and no where else, and are generally known by that name; but we have abundance of that kind come from Germany, so we call them by the names of the country, German birds, but I believe their first original were brought from the Canary islands. Those brought from the Canaries are not so much in esteem with us as formerly, for those brought from Germany and France far exceed them in handsomeness and song. German birds having many fine jerks and notes of the Nightingale and Tit-lark.
The nature of the Canary-birds is quite contrary to all others, for as other birds and subject to be fat, they never are, (I mean the cocks when in song) for the great metal of the birds, and his lavish singing, will hardly suffer him to keep flesh on his back. …
If you hear him sing before you buy him, then you are sure you have not bought a hen for a cock. As to the song, I count it good, when it is begun something like the Sky-lark, then running on the notes of the Nightingale, which if he begins well, and holds it long, nothing in my mind can be sweeter; but as the fancies of men are as different as either the colours or songs of the bird, so their eyes and ears are the best judges for their fancies, yet I shall not fail to give me opinion and judgement to those who have not had experience in this delightful and innocent amusement.
The next obervation is, a bird that begins with the sweet of the Nightingale, and ends with the song of the Tit-lark, is both harmonious, sprightly, and very delightful to the ear.
These notes are distinguished by the Sweet Jugg, followed by a swelling slut/flut, with the water-bubble, and then the sprightly song of the Tit-lark, chewing and whisking several times in a breath; a bird that will go on sweetly thought his song in this manner, withouth breaking off, may be said to be a good song bird.
Some fanciers are pleased when a Canary-bird only sings the song of the Tit-lark, which is indeed very pleasant and delightful. Others only fancy that bird which begins like the Sky-lark, and holds his song all the while in the same manner, having long notes and sweet, but I think not much variety in it.
If these instructions may not as first truly qualify a person, let this serve in general, that they chuse which is most agreeable to their own ear, and that which holds the song the longest, without breaking off short, with harsh scraping notes, or disagreeable whining. …
… The way then to distinguish between the cock’s song, and the hen’s jabbering is, that the cock, let him sing ever so indifferent, almost every time he strikes a note, you may easily perceive the passage of his throat to heave with a pulsive motion, swelling like a little pair of bellows all the time he is warbling out his pretty notes, which never happens to a hen; for let her make what noise she will, and resemble singing ever so well, this motion is never observed in her throat as it is in the cock’s.
…If you wish to teach a thrush to “pipe”, you must begin as soon as he is fledged, taking care even that during the first few weeks of his life he is not allowed to hear the voice of one of his own species; for, if he at once acquires his natural note, you will find considerable difficulty in making him discard it for the sake of your artificial music. A flute, or an ordinary tin whistle, is the best instrument with which to teach the thrush. You need not, however, as in the case of the bullfinch, blackbird, and some others, rise at daybreak to give your pupil his lesson; a bright warm afternoon will do very well, only it will be as well to cover up the cage, so as totally to exclude the light, for an hour before you begin.
Some thrushes possess imitative powers to a marvellous degree; tunes played on wind instruments, or whistled by the mouth, they will catch up and learn with a precision that is astounding. I have read and been told many stories, some ludicrous, some grave, concerning this faculty of the thrush; but the most curious and interesting is the following, furnished me by a friend at Manchester, a person on whose veracity I can rely.
There lived, on the skirts of the city, a thriving woodchopper; he had a capital business, employed several hands, and his workshop adjoined his dwelling-house. He was a particularly cheerful man, and from morning till night the din made by his chopper, and by the choppers of his boys, was rivalled by his incessant singing and whistling. Well, one day, in spite of his thriving business, in spite of his cheerfulness and singing and whistling, the wood-chopper committed suicide. To the surprise and dismay of his wife and his workmen, he was found hanged to a beam.
The woodchopper’s wife was a woman of business; therefore, after having her husband’s body removed to the house, and allowing the workpeople an hour or two to discuss the calamity, she set them to work again. It was a sultry summer afternoon, and, what with the heat, and the sight of the ugly beam, and the thought as to what had so shortly before been hanging there, the choppers rose and fell very languidly indeed, and the men and boys spoke to each other in whispers. Suddenly every mouth was ajar with terror, all the hair in the wood-shed rose on the heads of its owners, for, pealing through the place, was heard the familiar tune “William at the Garden Gate”, in the unmistakeable whistle of the dead wood-chopper! The men and boys rushed from the place, and went and told the widow; they then returned all together, and, just putting their heads inside the door, listened. With the exception of blocks, and choppers, and billets, the shed was empty; still, from invisible lips, issued “WATGG”, clear, shrill, unearthly! Neither for love nor money would man or boy venture within the shed to split another billet.
The place was haunted. Sometimes the most profound silence would reign in the shed for hours, and then would come a sudden burst of the ghostly whistling, scaring away listeners from chinks and keyholes. The widow advertised the business, but no man was found bold enough to buy it. So passed on three months, and the power woman was fairly on the road to ruin. One day, however, while seated at her window, she saw a bird fly from the neighbouring copse, alight on the roof of the deserted wood-shed, and immediately pipe up the now dreaded tune. Thus the mystery was cleared up. It was a thrush, who, attracted by the wood-chopper’s music, had listened until he had learned it, and, proud of the accomplishment, returned to the same spot every day to publish his scholarship.
The blackbird will learn any easy tune that is played to him on a flute or other wind instrument, and whistle it accurately. If, however, you wish to give him this sort of education, you must prepare yourself for some little trouble. You must begin with the bird when he is two months old, and give him a lesson, all alone in a room, in the dusk of the evening and at daybreak in the morning. Some birds learn better while their bellies are empty, but the blackbird will not stand this treatment. Give him a moderate breakfast or supper, and then before you begin the lesson hang in his sight a lively worm. This is to be a reward for good behaviour. Then slowly and distinctly play a few bars of the air you wish the bird to learn. He will pay great attention while you are playing, with his head on one side and both ears evidently wide open. After you have repeated the lesson, say twenty times, leave off, and keep quiet, giving the bird an opportunity to try the air if he has a mind. If he should attempt it, instantly give him the worm, caressing him and making a great fuss all the while. Do not fear but that a few days he will understand all about the worm, will look out for it, and do his best to earn it.
When a blackbird once learns a tune, he never forgets it nor any part of it. I once knew a bird that could whistle “Polly Hopkins” with wonderful accuracy. His owner sold him, at the same time making the purchaser acquainted with the bird’s favourite tune. As soon as the gentleman got him at home he at once hung up the blackbird, and, going to the piano, struck up “Polly Hopkins”. The bird’s new master, however, introduced parts into the tune that he had never heard before; so, after listening awhile, he began hissing, fluttering his wings, and otherwise signifying his distaste of the entire performance. Much surprised, the gentleman left off playing, and then the blackbird opened his throat, and favoured his new master with his version of “Polly Hopkins”, nor would he listen with patience to any other version.
The same blackbird, after staying in the service of the above-mentioned gentleman for two years, was adopted by a serious family, where “Polly Hopkins” and all such profanity was sedulously avoided. Whenever poor “Joe” (the blackbird’s name) attempted to strike up the old tune, a cloth was thrown over his cage, and he was silenced. The family consisted of an old lady and her two daughters, and every night, at seven o’clock, prayers were read and the “Evening Hymn” sung, and Joe, who was an obedient bird, and anxious to conform to the habits of the house, speedily learned the tune, and regularly whistled it while the old lady and her daughters sang it. This went on for six or seven years, when the mother died, and the daughters separated, and Joe, now an aged blackbird, fell into new hands; but to his dying day he never gave up the “Evening Hymn.” Punctually as the clock struck seven he tuned up, and went straight through with it with the gravity of a parish clerk.
The polylogistic powers of blackbird are such that it can imitate almost every inhabitant of the farmyard,–the gobble of the turkey, the crowing of the dunghill cock, and the “cluck” of the hen to her chicks. Some naturalists even go so far as to assert that it may be taught to utter words; but it would require evidence of my own ears to induce me to give credence to that assertion.
…The Mexican name for this little creature is “the bird of four hundred tongues”. “In extent and variety of its vocal powers,” says Wilson, “the mocking-bird stands unrivalled by the whole feathered songsters of this or perhaps any other country. ….The ease, elegance, and rapidity of his movements, the animation of his eye, and the intelligence he displays in listening to and laying up lessons from almost any other species of the feathered creation within his hearing are really surprising, and mark the peculiarity of his genius. To these qualities we may add that of a voice full, strong, and musical, and capable of almost every modulation, from the clear and mellow tone of the wood-thrush to the savage scream of the bald eagle. In measure and accent he faithfully follows his originals; in force and sweetness of expression he greatly improves upon them. In his native groves, mounted on top of a tall bush or half-grown tree in the dawn of the dewy morning, while the woods are already vocal with a multitude of warblers, his admirable song rises pre-eminent over every competitor.”
Nothing comes amiss to the mocking bird, the bark of a dog, the tremulous quavering of the canary, the creak of a wheel-barrow, or the soft-cooing of a wood-pigeon. Southey well describes the marvellous bird :—
That cheerful one who knoweth all
The songs of all the winged choristers
And in one sequence of melodious sounds
Pours all its music.
In a domesticated condition, however, the mocking-bird’s chief characteristic renders it impossible that he should be regarded as a sober chamber musician. For awhile he will be content with his own natural melody, which consists of from two to six short full notes, but the least noise is sufficient to disturb the flow of his natural melody, and one suggestion giving rise to another, you presently hear a Babel of bird music almost impossible to bear. “His imitations of a brown-thrush”, says a well-known naturalist, “are frequently interrupted by the crowing of cocks: the exquisite warblings of the blue-bird are by no means improved by the screaming of swallows or the cackling of hens; the shrill reiterations of the whip-poor-will are introduced into the simple melody of the robin. The uninitiated look round for the original, and then find that what appeared to be the product of a number of performers is really that of a single bird before us.”
Thanks to the many contributors to this documentary, listed here in order of appearance:
Aleksander Kolkowski – composer with an interest in bird song training and early sound recording and playback technology
Tim Birkhead – behavioural ecologist from Sheffield University, and author of the book the Red Canary, a book on the culture of breeding and rearing songbirds and the evolutionary biology of birdsong
Ken Westmorland – ‘champion of champions’ roller canary fancier
Geoff Sample – ornithologist and wildlife sound recordist
Katrina Porteous – poet, historian and broadcaster whose work is inspired by the culture and landscape of the Northumberland coast
I’m also grateful for advice from these other experts who you don’t get to hear in the show:
Grant Findlay – former chairperson of the Budgerigar Society
June Holmes – archivist of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. June is an expert on the late Sparkie Williams, who now graces a case in the Great North Museum: Hancock. Sparkie currently shares an exhibition case with a number of other bird specimens but June is trying to raise funds for a dedicated display.
Nicholas Lander – expert on the history of the recorder. The two woodcuts on this page are from Nicholas’ site.
Steve Nichols – Chief Executive of the Parrot Zoo (aka the UK National Parrot Sanctuary). Steve spoke to me at length about the ethics of keeping caged birds. Many of the parrots and parakeets at the sanctuary come from caring owners who are no longer able to look after their pets (with a lifespan in captivity in excess of 50 years, many parrots outlive their owners). Sadly, some parrots and parakeets end up at the sanctuary after being discarded by buyers who expected them to talk. When birds don’t talk readily and are rejected by their owners and left alone for long periods of the day, they become lonely and exhibit distressed, self-harming behaviour – a problem Steve often finds with new arrivals at the sanctuary.
Don Rowell and Linda Heighton – champion budgerigar fanciers
Derek Smith – researcher of Sparkie Williams who is currently trying to make a documentary about Sparkie and his trainer Mattie.