Birds of a feather don't sing together Accents separate robins of Britain

May 02, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Who said that every time an English bird open his beak he makes some other English bird despise him?

Well, nobody actually. But Alan Jay Lerner did say something once remarkably similar, about Englishmen, in "My Fair Lady."

His subject was accents, and the way British people speak, differently one from the other according to region and class, and how this whole country is divided by a common language.

But birds with accents? Who would have thought that?

Lance Workman certainly didn't when he began recording the songs of robins in his native Wales, and then those in Sussex, far removed in the south of England.

"I was looking for the effect of birdsong in defense," he says. "I certainly wasn't looking for song dialects."

But that's what he found, and more -- behavior that seems peculiarly, if sadly, human.

When Dr. Workman ran his recordings of the Welsh and Sussex robins through a machine called a sonograph, which translates the sounds into patterns on paper, the visual representations were easily distinguishable.

"I could put them into separate piles with no trouble at all," he says.

The songs differed in pitch, lilt and intonation. It became obvious to the biological psychologist doing the experiment, Dr. Workman, that they had regional accents.

It was obvious to the birds, too.

The variance, it seems, inspires among birds far removed from each other the same sort of suspicious regard and occasional belligerent behavior it often does among people, especially here.

"I played their song [that of the Welsh robins] to other robins [in Sussex] and used dummy robins to see if they would attack," says Dr. Workman. "I found they struck a defense posture when they heard the alien birdsong, ruffled their breast feathers, sang louder and longer and even attacked the models."

Robins in America are heralds of spring, happy little birds everybody is more or less glad to see.

Here they are generally nonmigratory stay-at-homes who cultivate their prejudices and don't much like strangers.

"They're vicious little devils," says Dr. Workman of the loutish robins.

Dr. Workman, who lectures at the school of humanities and social sciences at Glamorgan University near Cardiff, said he didn't want to get himself out on a limb, but he assumed there were probably many regional accents among nonmigratory birds, some only as little as 50 miles apart.

"I would be surprised if a Brighton robin [on the southern coast] doesn't sound different from a robin in the north of London," he said.

Or east London? Does this mean we're talking here about cockney robins? And how about Scots larks, with a brogue? Or pigeons cooing in Liverpool's accent? Tyke titlarks in Yorkshire?

The prospect of such a babble among the birds is frightening, even Hitchcocklike, and so Dr. Workman doesn't spend much time thinking about it. The robin song work he did for the fun of it -- as a lark, so to speak.

His serious research is with hens and chicks. (All his animal behavior studies have been with birds). He and Dr. Jan Adam, from the University of Cardiff, are studying the mechanism of imprinting in birds, the process by which chicks learn to identify their parents.

Dr. Workman says that birds develop their accents the same way humans do, by unconsciously imitating the sounds they hear all around them.

Birds, he notes, are great imitators.

"Most birds have sort of a template to imitate things that are big and loud," he says. "The idea is to frighten off predators."

Thus, he has found that starlings in London have begun imitating the sound of car alarms, devices fairly new in London but perhaps by now more numerous than the starlings themselves.

Thoroughly urban birds, they have also started making sounds that resemble the ringing of telephones, one of the commoner noises of the city now that portable phones are so popular. Everyone in the street and at every table in every restaurant seems to have one in pocket or purse.

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