News Archive 2009-2018

Ornithologist and Musician Team Up to Solve Birdsong Mysteries Archives


Ornithologist Nat Wheelwright and Music Professor Robby Greenlee

Two unlikely academic collaborators – a musician and an ornithologist who taught a popular class last year on the overlap of human music and bird music – are now launching novel research into birdsongs.

This summer, Robby Greenlee, professor of music, and Nat Wheelwright, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Natural Sciences, are working with John Butterworth ’14, a biochemistry major who plays jazz saxophone, to transcribe and analyze the coos of some 300 doves and pigeons.

By transcribing the rhythmic coos to musical notation to figure out tempos, pulses and beats, the researchers can begin to answer both musical and evolutionary questions. “What can the evolutionary advantage be [for a dove or pigeon] to use metrical rhythms?” Greenlee asked. “Why does a robin have such a musical song? A chickadee have such a simple song? The whys of this, why it has been successful for them, that’s an open question.”

John Butterworth '14

John Butterworth ’14 is transcribing pigeon and dove coos to music this summer

The team is curious about such things as whether similarities in coos made by different types of pigeons reflect phylogenetic links, or how songs have been adapted to different habitats, such as forests versus plains, big territories versus small ones. They’ll also look at the adaptive significance of unexpected twists in a bird’s song – for instance, when a bird that has been cooing rhythmically suddenly throws a curveball and adds a syncopated beat.

“We’re interested in whether there are rules to what music birds perform,” Wheelwright said. “There are human rules that you don’t violate if you want to be successful and please the audience – you resolve melodic tension, for example. Birds follow different rules, but I’m not sure people have explored what their rules are from a musical perspective.”

It’s extremely rare for a musician and an ornithologist to work together on a project; this is a completely new way to look at birdsong. In the past, there have been some people who have transcribed birdsong into musical notation, but the fact that we’re using a musical approach to answer certain ornithological questions, that’s really new.
-Music Professor Robby Greenlee

Greenlee and Wheelwright are beginning their research this summer with pigeons and doves before launching into other types of birds, such as owls and whippoorwills. “We’re starting small, focusing on rhythm more than pitch and dynamics,” Wheelwright said.
Greenlee explained that pigeons and doves, like humans, establish meter in their songs. “Carolina Chickadee, Black-throated Green Warbler, there are other birds that use metrical rhythms, but they tend to use their metrical rhythms with pitch. It seems like rhythm is more important to doves and pigeons than anything.”

This summer Butterworth has a grant from Bowdoin’s Gibbons Summer Research Program to listen to and translate hundreds of pigeon and dove recordings, some taken as far back as the 1950s and from all around the world, which have been digitally archived at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. While Butterworth says he’s more likely to go into microbiology research or medicine than ornithology, he likes to bird watch and listen. “I enjoy listening to the songs and applying my musical knowledge to them,” he said. Besides having played the sax for 12 or so years, Butterworth also sings in Bowdoin’s Chamber Choir, directed by Greenlee.

Greenlee says after Butterworth has translated the birdsongs, the team will break them down. “Do they make the feeling of compound time, with three beats, or simple time? Or do they have syncopation, which is a manipulation of the beat that throws it out of synch?” He pointed to the Mourning Dove’s song as an example of syncopation. “It establishes the pulse in the first two notes. And then in the last three notes, it syncopates that pulse. That syncopation is very similar to African music and Latin music; it’s very common in salsa.”

While Greenlee is coming at the research from more of an aesthetic, creative perspective, Wheelwright’s point of view is more scientific. When he thinks about syncopation, he wonders, “What we want to discover this summer is the adaptive significance of changing expectations. If birds that are listening to another bird become habituated to the same song, maybe they will stop listening. After five or 10 songs, when a bird suddenly switches to a different song, it’s as if to increase the attention drawn to the song.”

Wheelwright said there’s a lot of promise to approaching the science of birds from a musical vantage. “Robby and I are stretching across a gigantic gulf in our disciplines,” he said.