Networks of Birdsong

Birdsong is networking, the sending and receiving of signals across broad expanses. In the mornings, especially right now, the choir gets so loud that I am, as they say, up with the birds. And, although not an active or important part, I too am within those networks of birdsong. That is, I listen though am mostly ignorant of their meaning.

Each Bird Is a Neuron

Think of the birds themselves as neurons. Their bodies are the soma that provide energy to drive activities. Their voices are axons, sending messages to various other birds at once, and their ears (though not readily visible) are dentrites, receiving those signals.

In the mornings, I hear a complex reticulum of sound: some of them are songs, some calls, some alarms.

Different sounds and songs have different and perhaps mulitiple meanings:

  • mating songs used to attract mates
  • territorial songs to ward off competitors
  • alarm calls to ward off predators
  • contacts calls to coordinate movements
  • begging calls to solicit food from parents
  • social songs to strengthen bonds between groups
  • imitation songs to mimick others
  • whisper songs used for quiet communication
  • flight songs use to communicate on the go

In the mornings, I expect, we’re hearing all of these are more.

Why in the Morning?

In the morning, there tends to be less background noise, allowing them to communicate better. Also, the air is cooler and, therefore, denser. This means their songs will travel further at that time of day.

Perhaps their symphonies of sound are also like morning meetings at work, a way for everyone to plan and prepare for the coming day.

Imagine a Giant Bird Brain

We often think of networks in visible terms. We picture the brain and we envision complex interweavings of gray matter. We picture transportation networks and we see roads and railroad tracks and airline flight paths. We picture communication networks and imagine telephone poles and fiber optic cables and cell towers and millions of computers, televisions and more.

It requires a bit more imagination to visualize birdsong this way. But conceive of each bird sound as a differently colored fiber optic cable that extends to every other bird in the vicinity. These are the axons sending messages in multiple directions at once.

Now imagine that a bird (call her Alice) is just inside the hearing range of another bird (call her Shiho) who is calling or singing. If Alice responds to Shiho in some way, that message does not just go back to Shiho but to other birds who are considerably outside of the call range of Shiho.

Now there’s a third bird (call him Jake) who hears Alice and responds to her call, even if the original call was intended for Shiho. Jake responds to Alice as well. Now multiply this thousands or millions of times, and envision the complexity and sheer scale of that network.

The World Thinking Its Thoughts

Ocassionally I’ll read an article discussing the rise of the human infosphere wrapping the entire planet in wire and wireless networks, one that’s becoming the “nervous system” of the world. That may be valid as far as it goes, but we should remember that vast information networks existed long before human beings did, and they continue to today.

Human beings are still only in early stages of being able to grasp the information in these natural networks. Indeed, it’s likely that we civilized 21st century folks have actually lost much of our ability to tap into those networks. Many of our pre-agriculture predecessors were likely better at this, able to interpret what different sounds may mean for them.

For example, they might have gotten a heads up that a certain known and dangerous predator was in the area, or they might have been able to net certain birds who had communicated a feeding ground.

What’s Next?

But the one advantage we do have is our latest technologies. For example, there is the splendid Merlin app out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which identifies birds by their songs as well as by photos. Using these types of tools, we can more easily learn the various sounds of birds and even play certain vocalizations back to them to see if and how they respond.

There are other technologies that may help as well, especially in the area of machine learning. Indeed, Karen Bakker, a professor at the University of British Columbia and a fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, is quoted as saying,

There are long-standing Indigenous traditions of deep listening that are deeply attuned to nonhuman sounds. So if we combine digital listening—which is opening up vast new worlds of nonhuman sound and decoding that sound with artificial intelligence—with deep listening, I believe that we are on the brink of two important discoveries. The first is language in nonhumans. The second is: I believe we’re at the brink of interspecies communication.

That’s an amazing statement that I hope to examine more closely in a future post.

Talking Drums and the Depths of Human Ignorance

When I first heard of the talking drums, it make me think of how little we know about our fellow human beings and about the other citizens of the planet as well.

It’s a small but genuine annoyance. I’ll be listening some “expert,” often a professor, being interviewed for a radio show or podcast. If the idea of cognition comes up, they’ll state as a fact that humans are far more intelligent than any other animal on the planet. And, almost inevitably, one piece of evidence they’ll point to is communication. There’s the assumed inability of other animals to communicate with as much sophistication as we do.

Now, they might be right about these things, though obviously we’d need to define intelligence and communication to even establish a working hypotheses. What irritates me, though, is the certainty with which they make their claims. In truth, we just don’t know how we stack up in the animal kingdom because we still live in such a deep state of ignorance about our fellow creatures.

The Talking Drums

When I hear such claims, I think about the talking drums. For hundreds of years, certain African cultures were able to communicate effectively across vast distances. They did this right beneath the noses and within the hearing of ignorant, superior-feeling Europeans.

In his book The Information, James Gleick lays out the story of the talking drums in Chapter One. Via drums, certain African peoples were able to quickly communicate detailed and nuanced messages over long distances well before Europeans acquired comparable technologies. At least as far back as the 1700s, these African peoples were able to relay messages from village to village, messages that “could rumble a hundred miles or more in a matter of an hour…. Here was a messaging system that outpaced the best couriers, the fastest horses on good roads with say stations and relays.”

It was only in the 19th century that the missionary Roger T. Clarke recognized that “the signals represent the tones of the syllables of conventional phrases of a traditional and highly poetic character.” Because many African languages are tonal in the same way Chinese is, the pitch is crucial in determining the meaning of a particular word. What the drums allowed these peoples to do was communicate complex messages using tones rather than vowels or consonants.

Using low tones, the drummer communicates through the phrases and pauses. Extra phrases are added to each short “word” beaten on the drums. These extra phrases would be be redundant in speech, but they can provide context to the core drum signal.

Enormous Chasms

The technology and innovativeness of the talking drums is amazing, of course, but what’s especially startling is the centuries-long depth of European ignorance about the technology. Even once some Europeans admitted that actual information was being communicated across vast distances, they could not fathom how.

Why? Sure, racism no doubt played a part. But the larger truth is that they simply didn’t have enough information and wisdom to figure it out. That is despite the fact that we are talking about members of the same species and, indeed, a species with very little genetic diversity.

Here’s how the Smithsonian Institution reports on this lack of diversity:

[C]ompared with many other mammalian species, humans are genetically far less diverse – a counterintuitive finding, given our large population and worldwide distribution. For example, the subspecies of the chimpanzee that lives just in central Africa, Pan troglodytes troglodytes, has higher levels of diversity than do humans globally, and the genetic differentiation between the western (P. t. verus) and central (P. t. troglodytes) subspecies of chimpanzees is much greater than that between human populations.

On average, any two members of our species differ at about 1 in 1,000 DNA base pairs (0.1%). This suggests that we’re a relatively new species and that at one time our entire population was very small, at around 10,000 or so breeding individuals.

For Europeans to remain so ignorant about a technology created by other members of their own barely diversified species tells us how truly awful we are at understanding the communication capabilities of others. Now add in the exponentially higher levels of genetic diversity between species. For example, the last known common ancestor between whales and human existed about 97 million years ago. How about the last known ancestor between birds and humans? About 300 million years ago.

These timescales represent enormous genetic chasms that we are not remotely capable of bridging at the moment. We are still in the dark ages of understanding animal cognition and communication. So far, our most successful way of communicating with other animals is by teaching them our languages. So now we have chimpanzees using sign language and parrots imitating our speech patterns.  African Grey parrots, for example, can learn up to 1,000 words that they can use in context.

Yet, when these species do not use human language as well as humans, we consider them inferior.

If We’re So Bloody Bright…

But if we as a species are so intelligent, why aren’t we using their means of communication? I’m not suggesting that other animals use words, symbols and grammar the way humans do. But communicate they do. I live in Florida, which is basically a suburbanized rainforest, and have become familiar with the calls of various birds, tropical and otherwise. One of the more common local denizens is the fish crow. I hear crows that are perched blocks away from one another do calls and responses. The calls vary considerably even to my ignorant, human ears, and there are probably countless nuances I’m missing.

Are they speaking a “language”? I don’t know, but it seems highly unlikely they’re expending all the vocal and cognitive energy for no reason. Their vocalizations mean something, even if we can’t grasp what.

Inevitably, humans think all animal communication is about food, sex and territory. But that’s just a guess on our part. We assume that their vocalizations are otherwise meaningless just as many Europeans assumed the talking drums were mostly meaningless noise. In short, we’re human-centric bigots.

Consider the songs of the humpback whales. These are extremely complex vocalizations that can be registered over vast distances. Indeed, scientists estimate that whales’ low frequency sounds can travel up to 10,000 miles! Yet, we’re only guessing about why males engage in such “songs.” For all we know, they’re passing along arcane mathematical conceits that would put our human Fields Medal winners to shame.

On Human Ignorance

The point is that we continue to live in a state of deep ignorance when it comes to other our fellow creatures. That’s okay as long as we remain humble, but we humility is not what people do best. We assume we are far more intelligent and/or far better communicators than are other species.

Yet, consider the counterevidence. Just look the various environmental, political and even nuclear crises in which we conflict-loving primates are so dangerously enmeshed. It hardly seems like intelligence. Maybe the whales and parrots are really discussing what incapable morons humans are compared to themselves. With that, mind you, it would be hard to argue.

Featured image from Mplanetech. 11 January 2017