Friday, June 03, 2005 +

Animal Artists

From Richard Heinberg, “The Nature of Art”, MuseLetter.

Is art uniquely human? Certainly not. Of nonhuman animals, birds are among the most creative. During the 1940s, English musicologist Len Howard devoted herself to studying the music of wild birds. According to Theodore Barber's account of her work (published in his marvelous book, The Human Nature of Birds, 1993), she became personally acquainted with many and knew some for their entire lives. . . . Her intimate study of bird songs led to four surprising conclusions:

Birds, like humans, enjoy their songs. They take pleasure in singing, and they enjoy hearing even their territorial rivals sing.

Birds not only convey messages and express feelings and emotions in their songs, but at times they sing simply because they are happy.

Conspecific birds can be reliably identified by their unique variations of the species' song. In fact, conspecific birds apparently differ in musical talent as much as humans. This unexpected variability is due to the individual bird's interpretation of the theme, his technical ability in executing it, his "style" of delivery, and the quality or timbre of his voice. Some very poor singers are found in every songbird species. . . . There are also very superior musicians among songbirds. For instance, over a period of a few days, a talented blackbird creatively and spontaneously composed the opening phrase of the Rondo in Beethoven's violin concerto. (He had not previously heard it.) During the remainder of the season he varied the interpretation of the phrase; "the pace was quickened toward the end . . . a rubato effect that added brilliance to the performance." Birds produce beautiful songs, not by robotically carrying out a preset program but by individual talent, creativity, practice, and experience.

Birds are also capable of visual artistry. Consider the bowerbird, as observed by Heinz Sielman (and quoted by Barber):

Every time the bird returns from one of his collecting forays, he studies the over-all color effect. He seems to wonder how he could improve on it and at once sets out to do so. He picks up a flower in his beak, places it into the mosaic, and retreats to an optimum viewing distance. He behaves exactly like a painter critically reviewing his own canvas. He paints with flowers; that is the only way I can put it. A yellow orchid does not seem to him to be in the right place. He moves it slightly to the left and puts it in between some blue flowers. With his head on one side he then contemplates the general effect once more, and seems satisfied.