Man’s fascination with birds and the sounds they make dates back centuries, captivating poets and scientists alike.
In Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the character, Siegfreid, slays a dragon, eats its heart and then gets magical powers.
“And what magical power is it? It’s to understand the language of birds,” says Baltimore-based music producer, Ian Nagoski. As a researcher and preservationist of old records, Nagoski has taken a keen interest in bird sounds, and these creatures’ roles in shaping our own musical and artistic expression.
“People have been looking to birds for hundreds, thousands of years, reveling in the wonder of birdsong, how musical and obviously beautiful it is, and how incredibly foreign it is to us, too.”
In the old Persian love story of Layla and Majnun, a nightingale accompanies the lovestruck Majnun. And like Majnun, who loves Layla so much, the nightingale loves and sings to the rose. The nightingale with the rose is a recurring motif in Persian art.
And in the days before gramophones and the various mechanical contrivances that ascended through the 18th and 19th centuries, people also turned to canaries and nightingales, especially, for musical accompaniment.
In a way, I guess you could say, the caged bird was our medieval NPR.
They were bred and trained to provide soundtracks to our dinners, to fill the royal courts with their oh-so-sweet melodies.
Ornathologist and bird fancier Karl Reich became famous for having bred the first red canary (they’re green in the wild). Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome, the first orchestral piece to include prerecorded sound, calls for one of Reich’s nightingale recordings to play between the third and fourth movements.
“There was an idealistic sense that listening to God’s creatures was in and of itself beautiful, and maybe better than music, even,” says Nagoski. “And in particular, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was an interest in nature and naturalism.”
In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin describes attending a canary competition in a tavern. The birds were championed not for the quality of their song, but rather for their stamina.
“Darwin noted that an especially great singer might have sung until it burst a blood vessel in the brain and fell over dead,” says Nagoski.
Fast forward 150 years and training birds to sing is still a thing, though caged birds, in large part, have fallen out of fashion. The practice is especially popular in places like Indonesia and Suriname. Nagoski has even found canary competitions in his own backyard of Baltimore, MD.
From fascination to imitation
When Nagoski was digging through old, castoff records (as record collectors often obsessively do…), he unearthed some rather unusual, turn of the century recordings of what he thought sounded just like birds.
But they weren’t.
They were bird imitators.
And, as Nagoski discovered, there were lots of recordings made of them.
“At first I would say I was just delighted by what an interesting, odd skill it was,” he says. “I’d never seen anybody do such a thing.”
Nagaski has since restored some of these old gems and issued a compilation, Ecstatic & Wingless: Bird-Imitation on Four Continents.
Now bird imitation itself isn’t anything new. The practice may predate music, and even language itself.
“It’s probably very, very old,” says Nagoski. “One finds its presence still is an inherited traditional skill among hunters.”
But these bird imitators that Nagoski zeroed in on were live performers, who’d traveled the continents, playing in church halls, ladies societies, and vaudeville spaces.
“They were people who were amazing and amusing their audiences,” says Nagoski.
In the early 1900s, such venues were primary ways people listened to music and found entertainment in the U.S.
The “best by far” was Charles Kellogg, who produced birdsongs in his throat instead of by whistling and he made a fortune doing so. He grew up in the Sierra Nevada mountains and a lot of his imitations were based on his encounters in the woods.
“He was a naturalist and gave talks about loving nature and not being afraid of the creatures of the wild. Presenting yourself with an open loving heart was his great message in life,” says Nagoski.
But Kellogg was also a great showman and even trickster: he claimed he had a bird syrinx, an entirely different focal apparatus than other human beings.
This was not true, Nagoski says, “but that was show biz.”
The lady whistlers: a movement in feminism
Then there were the female whistlers, like Margaret McKee. She was trained at the California School of Artistic Whistling, one of several schools for artistic whistling.
Women whistling in public was “like a brand new thing at the end of the 19th century,” says Nagoski. “It was something of a novel movement in feminism and suffragette and women’s liberation.”
In old newspaper announcements, Nagoski repeatedly found the old proverb: a whistling woman and a crowing hen will never come to good end.
But another line would follow:
“They’d say, ‘Well times have changed, and now women can whistle!’ And this woman is coming to whistle in public, and there’s nothing wrong with it.”
And while very few women whistlers were recorded, you’ve probably heard Agnus Woodward without realizing it. A mentor to McKee, she whistled in the first five Disney features.
Woodward also published Whistling as an Art: Method for the Development of Tone, Technique, and Style.
Bird recordings take off
While bird imitation performances grew in popularity, recordings of birds themselves also took off at the dawn of the gramophone.
“It was a pretty big thing,” says Nagoski. “There were hundreds of such recordings made.”
This was especially the case for recordings of canary aviaries that included accompaniment by musical instruments, like pianos.
“People wanted something pretty to listen to around the house, and in the early days of the record industry, the last decade of the 19th century through the first two decades of the 20th century, the record companies were really casting around in the dark for anything they thought people might want to listen to at home.”
Nagoski is unimpressed, however. He much prefers the unaccompanied recordings of both birds and their imitators.
“I think it’s beautiful to listen to the voice of a nameless animal from a century ago and appreciate its quality and to think about what they’re able to do,” he says. “But I also think it’s beautiful that people were appreciating individual performers at the time and taking notice of particularly good singers, whether that be human or animal or something else.”
[For more on real bird songs and the stories behind them, The Pulse recommends this recent Fresh Air interview]
So what ever happened to the bird imitator, anyway?
“I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I think the reason that bird imitation doesn’t exist so much anymore as an entertainment thing is because in order for it to be really amazing and wonderful, it has got to be in person,” says Nagoski. “To have it through some media is actually less wonderful and amazing than to see a human being with the sound of a bird coming out of it.”
As for whether Nagoski has been tempted to give the practice a try himself, not so much.
“I have squacked like a duck at my daughter to amuse her, but I think that’s the only bird imitation I’ve ever done.”
Bird imitation, he says, is really hard.
“It’s a real skill and talent,” he says. “One has to develop it over time.”