Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

February 12, 1922. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 57(17=20): 12-N.

Bird Notes Hard to Imitate; Nothing in Musical Art Quite Resembles Sounds of Nature

By Sandy Griswold.

Interesting always, are the calls and songs of our birds, and yet what a small percentage of the most studious of their admirers, or, even the sportsman who makes an art of his chosen recreation, are familiar with the meaning of their commonest signals, can imitate any of their notes with anything like the accuracy, that it seems, should be easy.

All of our game birds are exceedingly alert and replete with expedient in their own preservation and protection, and the most ardent hunter of us all is compelled to call into play his finest skill and ingenuity to frustrate and bring them to bag.

Many species of our game birds, marvelously acute and extremely shy, when once startled by being shot at, and notably the prairie chicken, are acutely wary. After these birds have reached maturity, will take wing, after such an experience, and fly to great distances before again settling down, making it frequently utterly impracticable for the sportsman, hardy and indurated as he may be, to follow them.

With some birds a mastery of their calls will often enable the hunter to entice them back, but not so, the prairie chicken. The quail, however, is a bird easily lured and deceived by an imitation of their call, even by their "Bob, Bob White" in clover time, or their "oil-ee! oil-ee!" when the leaves are falling.

Bob White's Care in the Summertime.

Perchance there is little of the real love of nature in this, but no hunter will deny that his knowledge of the call of the birds has made him more profoundly conscious of the charms and witcheries of the great out-of-doors.

In the summer time Bob White is absorbed with his family cares and domestic dreams, and is engaged largely in keeping vigilant watch and ward over his downy little off-spring, and guarding with jealous persistence his beautiful little chestnut-coated mate. At this season of nature's fullest inflorescence, his voice is rich and mellow. It has the full rounded fullness of the flute, commingled with that penetrating and tender quality of the oboe.

A musician who thoroughly understands the value of natural tonalities, and is keen to perceive the key in which an air is pitched, tells me that the three notes, of which Bob White's summer call consists, are suggestive of both boldness and exultation, as well as of deepest love - that they are irredeemably the joyous outbursts of the proud and happy father.

At first the mind flashes to the conclusion that so beautiful a call should be easily expressed in the notations commonly used in music.

But let me inform you, there is nothing in nature that resembles music. The suggestion of sustained sounds, which comprise a melody, is not heard in any bird song. There is constant portomenta, or sliding of sound, which blends one note with another, just as is done in human conversation, making a succession that may be highly pleasing, but it is not melody.

Music in the Call, Olee-ee! Oli-ee! ee! ee.

And yet, in speaking of the quail, I must in a measure retract, for if there is any music in a bird's call, it is in that of Bob White. How the memory of the old time hunts must tingle the blood of the veteran sportsman. It surely does mine; though in all candor and truthfulness, I am today happy to know that the law in this state forbids their molestation. I can get thrill enough out of the memory of that strange and tender feeling that use to vibrate my being in the coming of the fall.

When the almost solid green rammage of the woods up along the Old River Road, or along the Elkhorn, was yet untinged with gold; when the blue gentian had just begun to unfold its fringed petals, and down along the sedgy shores the chelone was opening its hoods of pinkish white, when from the slender spike of the linaria, still hung racemes of softest blue, and amidst the fluff of the fading thistles still gleamed the yellow and black of the goldfinch, was when that mystic emotion deepened in my heart with each recurring day. And then, finally, when, one evening, in the amber of a September gloaming, as you stood in the doorway of your farmer hunting host's cozy home, there came from the distant window, where the acrid berries of the sumach were darkening among their reddening leaves, came that music, yes, it was music - that "oil-ee! oil-ee! ee! ee!" that set your soul ablaze - the evening roll call of Bob White.

Cuckoo Almost Sings a Melody.

But, really, what has nature done for us, or, more particularly, the musician? Well, I'll tell you. It has given us sound, not music. Nowhere does there fall upon our hearing, as we stroll through the wide world, such an arrangement of consecutive sounds as can be called a musical subject, or theme or melody.

The cuckoo, the real cuckoo, and not the misnamed raincrow, and which is but infrequently encountered or heard here, often sings a true third or even a fourth, and is truly, the nearest approach to music in nature of our bird calls.

This being the case, it is with a profound sense of the impossibility of doing justice to the call of even the quail - the easiest of all our game birds to imitate with a large degree of exactitude - or any other bird - in musical notes of common notation.

There are other birds, too, most any of us can imitate with much accuracy, and among these are the rollicking whistle of the scarlet grosbeak, the "caw" of the crow, the "chee-we-eeee" of the fish hawk and the "ke-uck" or "eko-eko-eko" of the yellowhammer. These are the commonest and the easiest. But who among us all can imitate with anything like naturalness the song of the robin, the oriole, the goldfinch, wood thrush, chewink or tree sparrow?