Songs of the birds and bees

A friend of mine feeds the crows in Mumbai. He calls them by name and they come to feed. But while the birds listen to him, he, of course, can’t understand a single word they say. 

That is the siddhi I wish I had.

In mythology and medieval literature the language of the birds is considered divine, a language used by the birds to communicate with only the initiated.

Birds communicate with animals – ravens lead wolves to prey and then feed off the remains. The Greater Honeyguide bird leads bears to forest beehives and eats the leftovers.

In Norse mythology the power to understand bird language was considered the ultimate wisdom. The god Odin had two ravens, called Huginn and Muninn, who flew around the world and told Odin what happened among mortal men. The legendary king of Sweden, Dag the Wise, had a sparrow which flew around and brought back news to him. According to the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga saga , the 9th century Viking hero Sigurd was given this gift of understanding, and his life was saved as he listened to  birds discussing an enemy’s plans to kill him.

Jason was an ancient Greek mythological hero, a descendent of the messenger god Hermes. His quest for the Golden Fleece features in Greek literature. He assembled a band of heroes whose tales have been recounted for 3000 years now. They sailed in the ship Argo and were collectively called the Argonauts. The figurehead of Argo, Jason’s ship, was built of oak from the sacred grove at Dodona and could speak the language of birds.

In the Talmud of the Jews, King Solomon’s proverbial wisdom was due to his being granted the understanding of the language of birds by God. This carries over into the Quran where Suleiman (Solomon) and David both knew the language of birds. 

The Conference of the Birds is a beautiful Sufi poem written by the 12th Century Persian poet Attar of Nishapur. The story begins with a meeting of all of the world’s birds to decide who will be their sovereign. The hoopoe, the wisest of all, proposes finding the simurgh (a mythical, benevolent bird related to the Phoenix) to resolve the dilemma. The poem describes their journey and the moral learning they encounter along their way.

The concept of the hero being given the gift of understanding bird language. either by some magical transformation, or as a reward for a good deed in folk tales, extends across the world - including Welsh, Russian, German, Estonian, Greek and Romany.

In the Jewish Kabbalah astrology and alchemy, the language of the birds, also called the Green Language, is considered a secret and perfect language and the key to perfect knowledge. The language was supposed to have been scripted by the Egyptian bird headed god Thoth. The Egyptians considered hieroglyphic writing "the alphabet of the birds.”

The Raven in Native American Indian lore is the bearer of magic, and a harbinger of messages from the cosmos. Messages that are beyond space and time are nestled in the black wings of the raven and come to only those in the tribe who are worthy of the knowledge.

This ability to use grammar is the essence of language. It is not enough to know the meanings of words, the structures and rules by which words are put together have to be understood. The view has been that humans are unique in this ability. Now scientists have found that songbirds have the same ability. Like us they learn the language by imitating their elders. But as they practice to develop their ability, they  improvise and string together new songs and, over generations, these modified songs turn into new dialects. And, like us, they come hard-wired with ‘speech-centers’ in their brain that are dedicated to language processing.

An experiment from 2009, by Fehér and colleagues, took newly hatched songbirds of the zebra finch species and raised them in sound proof chambers. They did this during their critical period of language development. These birds were raised in a world without song. But when they got together these isolated birds began to develop their own songs. These songs were less musical than typical songbird song - they had irregular rhythms, the notes stuttered and sounded noisier. But, in time, the songs became more like the songs of the wild songbirds, even though none of these birds had ever heard wild songs. Which means they had an innate understanding of the structures/grammar of their language. That is that finches who have never head the birdsong of their elders still absorb many of these grammatical rules.

A study by Kentaro Abe and Dai Watanabe, published in Nature magazine, focused on a species of songbird called Bengalese finches. A song bird responds to a song with its own song (we call it song but it is normal conversation).

The researchers kept playing the same song and the bird lost interest after a while and did not respond. Then they altered it slightly and got a response ('who are you' became 'why are you', for instance.)

The researchers taught grammar to the birds  by inventing a set of grammatical rules, and generating 50 songs that obeyed these rules. They repeated these songs to the birds for an hour, like a schoolteacher drilling 50 sentences into a new pupil. They then waited 5 minutes, and played the birds a new song that either fit this grammatical rule or broke the rule. The birds responded to the correct grammatical sentences, whereas the ungrammatical sentences ruffled their feathers. The birds were able to assimilate the rules of this new grammar!

What is the biological driving force behind this talent for grammar? Our brains have specific regions that 'light up' when we listen to a grammatically invalid construction. A specific area of the brain known as Broca's region has the ability to understand and produce grammatical speech. Scientists claim to have identified regions in the finches' brains that do the same.

So, birds have a proper language. Alas, I have not received the gift of being able to understand it.

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
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