For the Birds Radio Program: Of Cardinal Beauty

Original Air Date: March 25, 2003

What makes our hearts swell when we hear a bird pouring its heart out in song?

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I woke up on March 24 to the lovely sound of a cardinal singing. This wasn’t just a restrained song—he seemed to be singing his heart out, filling the entire air with all the passion and joy of spring itself. I know that as an ornithologist I’m supposed to look at bird songs as territorial declarations and enticements to females, and I’m sure this song was effective in these functions. But the exuberance in the delivery seemed to come from something deeper and lovelier than a mere biological imperative, or, if it didn’t, it certainly stirred a response in me deeper and lovelier than a mere biological imperative.

Alexander Skutch often writes about the nature of beauty in the natural world. Discussing the beauty of a flower in A Naturalist Amid Tropical Splendor he wrote:

It appears that the flower becomes beautiful at the moment when it is perceived by a sensitive observer. Its beauty does not reside in the flower alone, nor yet in the observer alone, but is created by their interaction. Every perception of beauty is a fresh creation, born of the fertile union of an appropriate object and a properly equipped observer. To this creative synthesis, the latter appears to make the larger contribution. A flowering plant, or the most elaborate work of art, is a structure far simpler than the manifold of eyes, nerves, and brain by means of which we perceive and respond to it. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that we find nature beautiful because we, as parts of nature, clothe it in beauty.

Dr. Skutch goes on:

It is evident that to understand why nature contains so much loveliness we must pursue two lines of inquiry. On the one hand we must ask how it acquired the forms and colors that make it beautiful, while on the other hand we must ask how we happened to develop the psychophysical organization that makes us responsive to beauty. However, it will soon appear that these are not two independent lines of inquiry, for some of the forms that most embellish the natural world arose along with the capacity to perceive and respond to them by a process of reciprocal enhancement.

Alexander Skutch was talking about visual beauty, but auditory beauty works the same way. Some bird songs have inspired beautiful work in the way that flowers and birds have inspired beautiful art. In my mind, in any aesthetic contest, birds would beat flowers hands down. Flowers can certainly be just as visually lovely as birds, but they’re too darned quiet. Listening to a cardinal pouring out its heart in song is a beautiful way to awaken to a lovely spring day.