Culture

How Well Do Rock Stars Know Their Birds?

The new Radiohead single isn't the first tone-deaf example of birds in music.

Being a birder should come with a giant warning sign: Once you start birding, you’re never going to stop. Even where there aren’t any birds around, you’ll find a way. These days I can’t watch TV or a movie without having to identify all the birds I see and hear in the background.

The same goes for songs as well. Back in the days of yore, when people didn’t always have their headphones in, when they actually paid attention to nature, lyricists—poets, mostly—could reference a bird’s song without stumping their readers. Coleridge and Keats both wrote poems about nightingales, Shelley honored the skylark, and Poe chose the raven (though his vocalizations weren’t scientifically accurate).

These days, what have we got? This unofficial-looking list of songs with birds in their titles peters out after the year 2000—the only real species mentioned on it is a mockingbird from the 2005 Eminem (!) song. But the Common Blackbird singing at the beginning of Radiohead's “Burn the Witch” (depicted as a bluebird in the video) has got me thinking about all the bird-y tunes I grew up with. Listening back on them, how do they hold up?

“Rockin’ Robin” - Bobby Day

This song was a staple in my elementary school music classes, and so growing up I assumed it was one of the most popular songs in the world. Over the years though, I’ve talked to many people who’ve never heard it. Thanks a lot, Mrs. Cantor.

For a non-birder, it’s a pleasant enough little bubblegum ditty. As a birder? It’s nonsense. “Tweedly-tweedly-dee”? That’s not what robins sound like! “He rocks in the treetops all day long”? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American Robins sing morning and night, and “sing the least close to noon.” I don’t know who this Rockin’ Robin thinks he is, but he’s rockin’ all wrong.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Phonetic translations of bird songs are tricky, and this lyricist could just have hated early mornings. Besides, any rock song that name checks chickadees and orioles is okay. I hope this song gets taught to the young’uns forever.

“Edge of Seventeen” - Stevie Nicks / “When Doves Cry” - Prince

“Edge of Seventeen” starts with the lines: “Just like the white-winged dove // Sings a song // Sounds like she’s singing // Ooh ooh ooh.” It got a lot of airplay in the ‘80s, but I was never really into the vibe and thought the song was cheesy. Prince, on the other hand, was (RIP) the most insanely cool person to ever have lived, and he shreds it with his love for doves.

But Nicks still wins the battle in a landslide (pun alert . . . totally worth it). I’m not trying to knock Prince in these sad times, but doves simply don’t cry. Yes, Mourning Doves do sound sad—it’s where their name comes from, after all—but that ain’t sobbing. Birds do have tear ducts, and sometimes they produce tears to clear salt from the eyes, but they aren’t out there weeping over their bald heads and bad eggs. (It’s actually unclear whether birds grieve at all).

On the other hand, White-winged Doves do sorta go ooh ooh ooh. It’s not quite as melodic as Nicks makes it out to be, but it’s close. Plus, the White-winged Dove is a pretty under-the-radar species, so props to Nicks for digging deep into her Sibley and not going with something easy and common, like a mockingbird. Looking at you, Slim Shady.

“Blackbird” - The Beatles

Don’t worry, I’m not going to say anything bad about this song. It’s the best. And, ornithologically speaking, it’s accurate. Common Blackbirds, like American Robins and other thrushes, do sing when it’s dark out (but, again, not so much during the day). Also, the bird song sampled in the track is an honest-to-goodness Common Blackbird—lifted from a sound-effects record. McCartney, ever the gentleman, even complimented the bird on its performance, saying, “He sings very well on that.”

And I don’t want to push my luck, but surely birds with broken wings can’t learn to fly. A broken wing is a death sentence, right? Turns out, not necessarily. Depending on the break, the treatment, and the bird, it’s possible for a bird with a broken wing to be re-released into the wild.  Or maybe the Beatles were referencing the display that ground-nesting birds, such as Killdeer, sometimes use to distract predators or annoying humans. The birds will limp around and hold their wing out like it’s broken, hoping the predator will try to eat the “injured” adult instead of the chicks. When the adult has lured the dumb, hungry creature far enough away from the nest, its wing all of a sudden isn't hurt anymore, and the bird flies away.

The Beatles are the best for a reason, folks.

“I Like Birds” - Eels

I listened to the album “Daisies of the Galaxy” a lot in college. I always liked the track "I Like Birds," but I never thought much about it other than the fact that it was a catchy tune. Listening to it again though, it sounds like it was written exactly for me.

“I can't look at the rocket launch // The trophy wives of the astronauts // And I won't listen to their words // 'Cause I like Birds.” Hey, that’s me! If I were at Cape Canaveral watching a space launch I would totally be looking the other way for Limpkin and Roseate Spoonbills.

“I can't stand in line at the store // The mean little people are such a bore / But it's alright if you act like a turd // 'Cause I like . . . birds.” Hey! That’s also me! I would definitely rather be out birding than talking to people. Come to think of it, this song might have subconsciously turned me into a birder. Music can be powerful like that, so listen carefully.

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