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In Writing

Bell Labs: Birdsong Contests

September 2017

Clive Bell takes a look the unlikely musical partnership found in birdsong contests across the globe

When improvising with another musician, don’t become distracted by wondering what’s going through his or her mind. This occurred to me repeatedly while playing shakuhachi with a nightingale in May this year. Deep in Sussex woodland, we were a group of twenty or so, walking in single file at midnight till we reached a tall hedgerow. The nightingale sat hidden within, pouring out a showy torrent of yodels, trills and trickery, a Steve Lacy soprano sax solo spun through a Tom Daley Olympic medal dive. Nightingales have the advantage of two voiceboxes when ripping out those impossible tremolos, so maybe that should be a synchronised dive. The males sing loudly through the night while females are migrating overhead. A stunning performance may entice a female to visit. This bird seemed unphased by the presence of so many silent humans just a couple of metres away, and his reaction to my playing was, as I say, hard to gauge. The occasion was one of the Singing With Nightingales events organised each spring by singer and folksong collector Sam Lee.

Sam’s evenings are a communal experience, an experiment in close-up human and non-human music making. But for many songbird enthusiasts, the interest lies in training the bird to sing better. In a shop in east London’s Forest Gate I met Ali. Temporarily homeless, Ali was more or less living in his shop, where he had several exotic birds in covered cages behind the counter. He showed me a particularly valuable one, where his mobile phone lay on the cage roof, playing non-stop birdsong. Birds learn by copying, and the thinking is that they will become far better singers if they are supplied with top quality role models than if left in the wild. This raises the possibility that songbird contests are taking place in London. I haven’t yet found them, and I imagine they may be clandestine.

Such contests are widespread in Southeast Asia. My colleague, accordionist Mike Adcock, chanced upon one this year in a market in Cianjur, West Java. A dozen cages were suspended high up, while below men with clipboards assessed the singing. In central Jakarta contests can attract hundreds of entrants, passionate bird trainers arriving along with their white-rumped shamas, green bulbuls or hill blue flycatchers. On one level it’s a (largely male) social occasion, on another there’s a lot of prize money at stake. A ten minute video from Phuket in Thailand shows the competitors desperately encouraging their birds from the sidelines, bending the rules by gesturing, whistling or blowing kisses. A bird with potential may be worth as much as a Toyota Fortuner. In fact a belief that it’s unlucky to put a price on a bird means they are more likely to be bartered for goods such as cars. The judges, some of whom are women, are assessing melody, rhythm and volume. One contest in Phuket demands that birds sing eight specific pitches within a defined time period.

Video of birdsong contest. Phuket, Thailand:

One enthusiast for these booming competitions is the boxer Mike Tyson, who earlier this year flew to Suriname in tropical south America with one of his seventy birds. The suspicion is that Tyson’s trip was set up by a TV channel, but he has kept birds since the age of eight and his close relationship with them is genuine enough.

Someone who has been playing music with birds and animals for years is writer/musician David Rothenberg. With several eloquent books on the subject under his belt, Rothenberg’s latest project is a film, Nightingales In Berlin, directed by Ville Tanttu and due to appear in 2018. A relatively quiet city with plenty of green space, Berlin in the spring is home to many nightingales, who will even perform their less complicated numbers in broad daylight. Nightingales migrate to Europe from West Africa. Rothenberg films his invited musicians encountering the birds as musical partners for the first time, and develops a metaphor around the human migration involved in these particular artists arriving in Berlin.

David Rothenberg’s teaser for his film Nightingales In Berlin:

Many of us probably feel that natural birdsong, encountered in the wild, is a particularly beautiful form of sound, and needs protecting, rather than improving via human intervention. But there are plenty who believe, for both financial and aesthetic reasons, that birds could do better, and that thorough education can raise a bird to greater heights of achievement. It’s one more type of animal breeding, as we’ve practised for centuries. The Japanese novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki wrote about it with subtlety and some irony in his 1933 novella, A Portrait Of Shunkin. Shunkin is a beautiful but sadistic teacher of shamisen, who makes her pupils listen attentively to her pampered nightingale, Tenko. Shunkin’s point is that no wild nightingale can sing as exquisitely as the trained bird, and the pupils should aspire to be that skilful. “When you hear a bird as accomplished as Tenko,” Shunkin reminds her cowering human trainees, “you are reminded of the tranquil charm of a secluded ravine – a rushing stream murmurs to you, clouds of cherry blossoms float up before your eyes. Blossoms and mist alike are within that song, and we forget that we are still in the dusty city. This is where art rivals nature. And here too is the secret of music.”


Crimson Rosellas - a type of parrot common in Australia. They have three types of sound. There's a squawk, used for long distance communication. They have several beautiful bell-like whistles - usually in two to three note patterns - for medium distance communication. Then they chirp (a squeak like a child's squeezy toy)a lot when having intimate conversations with each other. there are several discernable phrases. They are also extremely curious, aggressive amongst themselves but an absolute delight to look at - olive green when born, gradually turning red, black and blue. They are almost like tiny cartoon clowns in their behaviour. Most of all, they are learners - I believe they would enjoy singing new signals but they are wild and I see no way to train them - caged birds are a crime.

There's no limiti yo human cruelty and stupidity
Poor birds kept in cages

Maybe you'll find this science note interesting, published today (Nov 1st): "How songbirds learn a new song" link:

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