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(in)habit [2022]

[video: 2:17 min]

The “cenzontle” (from the Náhuatl centzontotol meaning: bird of 400 voices) mockingbird in English, is a songbird that mimes and learns songs from other birds and animals, and can have many hundreds of songs in their repertoire. (“Part of the mockingbird’s advantage over other avians is physical; it uses more of the muscles in its vocal organ, the syrinx, than most other passerines do, many more than non-passerines like raptors or waterfowl.” [1] )

In The Deeds of Blessed Francis & His Companions, which narrates the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, there is a chapter in which Saint Francis “saw some trees in which perched such a great flock of different kinds of birds that a similar gathering had never before been seen in those parts” Saint Francis decided to “go and preach to my sisters, the little birds” After the sermon, asking the birds to praise God for retribution of their natural qualities, “…all those birds began to open their beaks, spread their wings, stretch their necks, and reverently bend their heads to the ground, showing with their singing and movements that the words which the holy father spoke greatly delighted them.”

 (in)habit came from a particular event that happened in Mexico with my late father.

Around the year 2007 my father started learning a little Minuet by Domenico Scarlatti (K. 73) transcribed for guitar. At home there were a very large amount of birds living around the house and my father use to work the guitar with the windows open hearing the birds. While learning this piece, he started immediately to ornament and change rhythmical patterns of the piece along with his very own personal rubato. During that period of learning and constantly playing each day the piece he noticed that a cenzontle was on the flock of birds around the house and was also learning parts of the Minuet by Domenico Scarlatti. After several days, he decided to record the bird’s song and send it to me; the cenzontle not only learned the pitches but also the rubato and ornamentation that my father was doing.

If cenzontles and the many other oscine birds are copying and transmitting fragments of sound history along the ages, before the human being developed a language or its oral tradition; we are indeed missing a very important aspect of our history, a historical pattern that could help us finally understand our surroundings and environment, a language being yelled at us each and every day but not able to understand. When Saint Francis preached to those birds, we do not know how nor in what way the message was transmitted; being conscious of the capacity of oscine birds to learn “songs”, we could imagine that the descendants [2] of those birds in the presence of Saint Francis, still carry the message of Saint Francis in their repertoire, as that cezontle and its descendants are probably doing with the interpretation of my father’s Minuet by Scarlatti.

[1] Mike Corey © 2019 10,000 Birds – All rights reserved

[2] “Previous research concluded that young males (Zebra finch – Taenopygia guttata) imprint upon their fathers at an early age, and model their songs upon their fathers’ songs”. More recent research (by Heather Williams) concluded that Zebra finches make choices about which males to copy to “represent themselves through their own songs”. The research by H. Williams also concludes that newborn birds on a flock colony have a tendency to develop their own repertoire or language (more similarities) between their own “generation” having less similarity with their fathers or older generations.


Models for song learning in the zebra finch: fathers or others?

Author(s): Heather Williams

Source: Animal Behaviour, Volume 39, Issue 4, 1990, Pages 745-757, ISSN 0003-3472

Published by: Elsevier Ltd.

Relations between Song Repertoire Size and the Volume of Brain Nuclei Related to Song: Comparative Evolutionary Analyses amongst Oscine Birds

Author(s): Timothy J. Devoogd, John R. Krebs, Susan D. Healy and Andy Purvis

Source: Proceedings: Biological Sciences , Nov. 22, 1993, Vol. 254, No. 1340 (Nov. 22, 1993), pp. 75-82

Published by: Royal Society

Aggressive Response of Red-Winged Blackbirds to Mockingbird Song Imitation

Author(s): Eliot A. Brenowitz

Source: The Auk, Jul., 1982, Vol. 99, No. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 584-586

Published by: Oxford University Press

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