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An excerpt from Chapter VI - Songs Without Words:
HOW BIRDS LEARN TO SING
It is nature's only way to teach sound — by ear — and still the most exact. As a child is born a certain racial type of linguist and learns to speak by imitating the words in daily use about him, so a bird enters life the kind of singer that he is and learns his notes by imitating those of his closest associates. Only, the more clever young child, given an equal opportunity to hear two languages, acquires one as readily as the other; while the bird, in a state of nature, usually confines its notes to the traditional ones of its clan, although it may hear the notes of scores of other species every day of its youth. Certain very young European goldfinches, isolated from others of their kind, showed a decided tendency to repeat only the notes of the caged songsters about them; still, they used some inherited notes, too, and these, with the inherited quality of voice, made their song sufficiently characteristic of the species to be recognizable. Many more experiments are necessary, however, to prove with scientific accuracy that a bird even partially inherits his song. We know that expert trainers have taught the bullfinch to whistle "Yankee Doodle." The mocking-bird is by no means the only mimic. A certain pet canary could so perfectly imitate the English sparrows that came about his cage on the porch to pick up the waste seed, that it was only by watching the movements of the feathers on his throat that one could believe it was he who was amusing himself by imitating the chirpings and twitterings of an entire sparrow flock.
Probably a bird both inherits and acquires his notes; otherwise, how could we account for the many variations of the same song rendered by different birds of the same species? No two canaries in any shop sing precisely alike, although all may have been hatched in the same peasant's house in the Hartz Mountains. In every case individuality reveals itself in shrillness or mellowness of tone, in the low, sweet, tender warble, or the sharp, almost vindictive roundelay incessantly repeated with the evident desire to overpower all rivals; yet we recognize the canary in each song. To the general characteristics of the species we must add individuality of temperament and the training received from the individual's associates before we can understand any bird's music.
Travelers in the Canary Islands say that the wild canaries there are by no means so skilled musicians as the caged singers. Doubtless the bird's voice has been improved by cultivation as much as his feathers, which, originally, were greenish gray and brown, when canaries were first imported into Europe in the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, our own wild songsters show almost, if not quite, as much diversity as the caged canaries when we concentrate our study on the music of a single species.
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