Here is the next installment of Beatrice Allen Page’s unpublished manuscript, Landscape With Figures:
“When I first arrived, the early mornings were all fluted and flounced with bird songs. The chorus has gradually and markedly diminished since then. Presumably there is to much to do – nestlings to be fed and fledglings have to be coaxed out of nests and guarded against predators.
However, about six this morning I heard a mellifluous robin-like song I hadn’t heard in years – a rose-breasted grosbeak. I picked him out with a pair of field glasses, perched on the topmost twig of the dead poplar down by the edge of the field. He sang for about half an hour with just a momentary pause between songs. Occasionally he flew to another poplar, always perching close to the tiptop and usually on a bare twig where no leaf could conceal him. He appeared to be celebrating a new day, to be exulting in the whole creation.
Now when I say thing like that, of course I’m on dangerous ground: I can be accused of projecting human emotion into birds. Most people find it easy to believe that dogs feel love, loyalty, grief. Why should they assume that the seeming fear, curiosity or joy of a bird is just an instinctive response to a stimulus, unaccompanied by feeling?
I shall never forget the warbler I watched once by the side of a country road. Because of the way the light fell, I could not see its colors clearly and its song was unfamiliar to me, so I never identified it. I have never seen or heard a bird sing with such passionate yearning. It was a transport of love and grief that involved its whole being, or so it seemed. He was perched on a small dead tree, clearly outlined against the sky, and as he sang, he stretched himself up to his fullest height with his head tipped slightly back, and kept turning first one way and then the other.
Then I noticed a bedraggled little nest hanging almost upside down from a branch of a nearby sapling. Presumably it had been dislodged by a downpour earlier in the day and the eggs or nestlings spilled out and drowned in the runnel below. I could not help the interpretation that his mate, faithful to the last to her maternal charge, had drowned with the young rather than abandon them and that he simply could not or would not accept the tragedy that had befallen him. I was certain he had deliberately chosen that bare tree to perch on because he could be clearly seen by his mate and he was going to sing until he forced her by the strength of his will and desire to return to him.
Be that as it may, what is purpose of birdsong? A squawk or a tuneless chirping would do as well as a song to attract a mate or state out a territory. Besides, birds sing even when these purposes have been accomplished. I believe there is a theory that their singing is an automatic reaction to light or temperature on their gonads, like a door opening in response to an electric eye. Even if it’s true, that still doesn’t explain why they sing instead of just making some kind of noise.
I think perhaps bird song is something you don’t try to explain. It just is. The particular grosbeak I heard this morning seemed to me to have not only an outstanding gift for tremolo but unusual depth and tenderness in the repetitive phrases he warbled. Who knows whether he actually felt any emotion? Perhaps his song served a purpose unknown both to him and to me, which was essential to the universe in some way totally beyond our comprehension.”