The sounds of Christmas – the songs and the tunes associated with the festive season – have a special place in my heart.
With most people its Christmas carols and jingles, but when this time of year comes around a song of a bird is firmly fixed in my subconscious. Not surprisingly it is the song of the European robin.
As a child growing up in Britain, when I awoke early to open my Christmas presents – too early for my parents – robins were always singing their winter territorial song in the garden.
It’s now a sound cemented in memory as strongly as the tinkle of tinsel on the Christmas tree, or carols being sung on the radio.
Birds don’t normally tend to sing in winter, saving their energy for the rigours of hunting for food in the coldest months, but the merry robin, the blackbird and the song thrush always seemed to defy convention. Perhaps that is one reason the robin, with striking red breast, is so much a part of the folklore and culture of Christmas in Europe, and to a degree in Australia, too, because each year it never fails to amaze me to find Australian Christmas cards with singing robins on them!
In Australia we can have it both ways when it comes to Christmas bird song. The season to be merry neatly coincides with summer, when birds are at their most vocal. In fact when nature lovers think of the summer holiday period in Tasmania they not only think of Christmas trees, they think of birdsong.
We are tuned into the birdsong rhythms of the seasons, even if we don’t always realise it. It is the melody from the paddocks and treetops that wakens us from our winter slumber and quickens our step in spring and into summer. Birdsong is as fundamental to our being as the first warm rays of spring sunshine. It’s part of our soul.
Birds, of course, have been singing far longer than humans have been around and this fact fuels the notion that perhaps mankind actually learned song, and possibly language, from birds.
How much of human music had its first roots in imitation of bird song we will never know but it is probably not a coincidence that some bird “music” can be quite faithfully transcribed in our standard musical notation of staves and printed notes.
Poets have extolled birdsong since the beginning of human time and musicians have been transcribing bird songs since the 17th century, among them Handel (1685-1759) with his The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. Many compositions concern birds whose songs were in a tempo and range that were easily accessible to human perception.
The songs of members of the thrush family – including the blackbird introduced to Tasmania and a resident, the Bassian thrush – are known to be particularly beautiful. For me, the blackbird’s song more than any other reminds me of the kinds of sounds humans make.
The link between birdsong and human song has hit a different note recently with American researchers at Hunter College in New York City discovering parallels between how human babies and chicks learn to make sounds. It appears the babbling of babies and the cheeps of nestlings are not so very different.
At the genetic level, birds and humans share molecular building blocks. At the neurological level, we share brain structures crucial for song in birds and speech in humans.
Behaviourally, birds and humans both use syllables strung together into phrases; both “babble” during a critical learning period; and both are “vocal learners” – birds learn to sing from a male tutor bird, and children learn to speak from their parents.
With these parallels in mind, the New York Times reported recently that more researchers are turning to birdsong as a model for human speech, which is notoriously difficult to study.
As I write this column, before wrapping my Christmas presents, a bird is singing in my garden, not the robin I knew in Britain but an Australian one, the scarlet robin. And as I listen to its thin, sweet descending song I realise there is clearly more to birdsong than meets the ear.