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.