Science - January 6, 2010

Blackbird wins song festival

The blackbird was Number 1 in the Bird Top 100 in the VARA radio programme Vroege Vogels [early birds]. Songbird expert Henk Meeuwsen at Alterra fully agrees with this ranking, although he does have a few critical remarks about the competition.

'I voted too, of course. You have to choose ten birds from a preselection. Five of my ten made the final top ten: the blackbird, the nightingale, the song thrush, the garden warbler and the skylark. I agree with the top three - the blackbird, nightingale and song thrush - in whatever order. Although the nightingale tends to be a little overestimated. It just happens to have a name for singing, doesn't it.
'However, the list is open to questions. The familiarity of the species certainly plays a part. You can see that from the fact that the icterine warbler only got to Number 38, whereas its song is much more melodious and varied than the far better known great tit, for example, which is at Number 9. Appearance also plays a role. Look at the kingfisher, which got to Number 56. I mean, all it says is 'peep'. It wouldn't even have made the Top 100 on the basis of its sound alone! But it is such an attractive bird and that's why it got such a high position. In that regard it's just like the Eurovision Song Festival. What makes the blackbird so special is the warm sound. A lot of birds have a high-pitched song and that soon sounds shrill. The blackbird's song is in a frequency that we are more attuned to and which you can easily whistle along to. It is a pleasant, warm sound.
'A list like that arouses the researcher in me. How could you set it up so that you are only judging song quality and nothing else? You should really let people do the judging who know nothing about birds and don't know the pictures. That would be fun. I should suggest that to the VARA sometime.
'I should say I was not involved at all in this competition. I will, however, be bringing out this Bird Top 100 on a double CD together with the VARA. Two and a half hours in total, with the best songbirds on one CD.'

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