Friday, June 6, 2008

Notes on "Bird Song by Don Stapp"

Bird Song by Don Stapp

I am now reading Don Stapp’s Bird Song. He is a world expert on the song of birds and the book attempts to unravel the secret of why birds sing. I would like to share some passages from the book and also express some thoughts. First the quote from the book:

"Nearly all .. birds, [that are not songbirds] …… are born with their vocalizations genetically encoded, which is to say that they would grow to adulthood and vocalize as others of their species do even if they were born deaf. But baby songbirds learn their songs in much the same way children learn to speak. They listen to an adult, then practice what they hear until they can repeat it. So far as we know, no other land animal – not even our closest relatives, the primates – passes on learned vocalizations this way from generation to generation. ……..

Learning increases the possibilities for variation. For nearly every songbird species studied, geographic variation – dialects – exists. Thus the chickadee’s lack of dialects was intriguing. And it was all the more interesting because Kroodsma knew it wasn’t the result of some kind of restriction in the song-learning centre of the brain. He knew because he had taken a nest of baby chickadees home, raised them, exposed them to more than once song, and watched as they developed several songs. The study ………. proved that male black-capped chickadees exposed to a variety of songs and song-learning situations will learn more than one song. Moreover, young chickadees that were isolated from each other developed different dialects.

So the black-capped chickadee was able to learn more than one song and even appeared predisposed to do so."

Shamas also have this ability to learn new songs. Being amongst the finest of songbirds, they readily imitate and incorporate into their own song, the sounds that they hear. They do so sometimes without us even knowing it. I brought Icon to the Rifle Range Nature Reserve once many months ago. There is a wild free flying Straw-headed Bulbul there that often sings. After the visit, there was no indication that Icon had learnt its song. However, recently to my surprise, Icon sang the Bulbul’s song. Michael’s Supermodel has also incorporated the song of a house alarm going off. It’s quite pleasant. The shrill and jangling sounds of the alarm have had their sharp edges rounded off and the alarm is now a series of pleasant whistles.

The Indonesian hobbyists tend to take a greater interest in the song development of the shama than hobbyists in other countries. If feasible, they have other calling birds around their male shamas especially during the molt. These even include budgerigars but for some reason that I do not know, the Indonesians do not want their shamas to learn the song of the Straw-headed Bulbul although many of them value it as a songbird. I speculate that the reason may be because many Indonesians prefer their shama's song to be “tajam”. This Indonesian word literally translates as sharp but the more appropriate meaning may be high pitched. The Bulbul’s song, being more drum-like is consequently not favoured as part of the shama's song repertoire. I love the Straw-headed Bulbul's song and I am quite happy that Icon has learnt it.

In general, the Indonesian hobbyist concentrates only on the shama’s song to the exclusion of other features such as display and structure. For the Indonesians, the most desirable songbirds come from Medan where the shamas are known for their song. The shamas from Acheh are also popular. The least popular are the shamas from Lambung and Borneo as they tend to have less variety in their songs which are also more likely to be repetitive. Bear in mind that this is a generalization and that there may always be a pocket of forest where the shamas have developed a song, structure and display over many generations.

What can we learn from the above passages in Bird Song? I think it answers the question as to whether a juvenile shama will be able to develop its full song if it is the only bird in the house. Like children, young shamas have differing genetic ability to learn and express themselves in song. However, even if they have such ability they need to be taught if they are to develop their full potential. We should therefore avoid buying a juvenile shama as the only bird that we own.

In my own breeding program, I have been lucky to reach the point where I have attained generally what I had aimed for and can now try to improve specific aspects. I would like to further improve song and display. To improve song, I have in mind to obtain (after the bird flue) a bird probably from Acheh, Indonesia, that can pass its superior song to its progeny. I would look to Acheh and not to Medan as the characteristics that I need to complement my birds are more likely to be found in the birds from Acheh than from Medan. Although, the Medan shamas generally have superior voices to those in Malaysia, they also tend to be thick-feathered with very short tails whereas the Acheh shamas are more like the type of birds I am trying to breed. For display and strong character, I hope to get a suitable shama from Malaysia. It’s still a long way to go to reach my ideal shama but I am on the road and, who knows, I may yet achieve my aim.

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