Delightful Duet Singers
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN KENYA
THE two vocalists faced each other, ready for their performance. The lead singer bowed slightly and produced a soft, clear note that was so liquid and pure that it resonated into the morning air for a great distance. The second singer then gracefully bowed and with perfect timing produced an equally fluid note an octave higher. As the duet gained momentum and intensity, the two voices began to sound like one. I listened with breathless excitement and marveled at their well-honed skill and their voice quality.
This virtuoso performance was not played out in some packed-out symphony hall. Rather, it was performed on a tree limb near my home here in Kenya—by two birds. When their song was finished, the feathered performers stood erect, opened their wings, and flew away.
It is often said that “birds of a feather flock together.” Remarkably, though, some birds also seem to enjoy singing together—and with exquisite precision at that! So harmonious is such duet singing that without visual clues, it is often impossible for the listener to detect that two different birds are making the music! Even scientists have been fooled. Thus, only in relatively recent times has duet singing been recognized as a behavioral pattern among birds.
The Bell Bird
The tropical boubou, for example, is a particularly adept performer. Found on the African continent, it has a unique flutelike song that often resembles the trill of two pieces of metal being struck together. Thus, it is commonly called the bell bird. The boubou is handsomely tailored with glossy black crown, nape, and wings. Its snow-white breast feathers and white wing bar make for a stunning contrast. Boubous are always seen in pairs, and male and female are alike in markings and color.
Anyone walking in thick forest or bush will know of the boubous’ presence long before spotting them. The male will often utter three rapid bell-like notes. These are immediately answered by a croaking kweee from the female. Sometimes one bird emits a continuous sequence of notes while its partner chimes in with a single tone—a melodious note that enters into the flow of song without any audible break.
Exactly how this coordination is achieved is not fully understood by scientists. Some think that, at least in some cases, it may simply be a matter of “practice makes perfect,” as the saying goes. The male and female sing together day after day, thus achieving their high level of precision in performance.
Interestingly, boubous often seem to have an “accent” that varies according to location. This appears to result from their imitating local sounds or other birdsongs. This process is called vocal copying. As a result, the songs of boubous heard in the bushveld of South Africa can be quite different from those heard in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa.
In the book The Trials of Life, David Attenborough observes: “It is rather touching to discover that duetting pairs, as a rule, remain together season after season, if not for life.” What accounts for this strong bond? Attenborough goes on to say: “Having developed the technique they also practise it as a way of reinforcing the bond between them, singing their complex duets even while sitting next to one another on a branch; and sometimes, if one of the pair is absent, the lonely bird will sing the full elaborate melody filling in the missing parts itself.”
The songs may also help the birds to locate each other in dense vegetation. When the male wants to know the location of his mate, he begins a series of melodic notes, and the female joins in, even though she may be some distance away. Their timing is so exact that it is as if they planned the performance beforehand.
Whistling While They Work
Do you enjoy working to music? Well, apparently, many birds do too. The book The Private Life of Birds, by Michael Bright, notes that birdsongs have a stimulating physical effect on listeners, saying that after exposure to birdsongs, “the heart rates of both males and females went up.” Furthermore, some female birds “built their nests faster” and “also tended to lay more eggs” when they listened to male birdsongs.
Scientists will no doubt continue to discover fascinating things about duet singers, such as the tropical boubou. But whatever functional value their thrilling songs may prove to have, let us not overlook the fact that they serve yet another lofty purpose. They bring pleasure to the ears of appreciative men and women! Indeed, such breathtaking music moves us to give praise to the Creator of “the birds of heaven.”—Psalm 8:8.