Laying awake this morning it occurred to me that there are at least three things that mankind has been wondering about as long as there has been mankind, namely: religion, dreams and birdsong.

     We all know about organized religion.  According to Mark Twain, it has been part of human debate since the first con man met the first idiot.  Thinkers ranging from the ancient Greeks to Martin Luther, Mohammed, Buddha, Thomas Moore, and that guy on the television with the extraordinarily large ears have been explaining it forever and we are still no closer to a definitive understanding.  Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914), a thinker no less cynical than Twain, but slightly less succinct, defined religion this way: “A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.”

     Dreams are another bottomless mystery.  Freud and others have dissected them.  Frankie Valli has sung about them.  Scientists have used MRI’s to determine which parts of the brain are involved with them.  Art and music and even human love and affection have been equated with dreams and inspired by them.  Authors have exploited them in the interest of telling stories.  Yet, these adventures still afflict and/or mystify most people most nights and we still have no idea what they mean. 

     A dream is a positive concept in most artistic and philosophical usages, Poe and Hitchcock aside.  Yet, in my own experience, dreams are more likely to involve struggle or stress than something wonderful.  To me, dreams are the best, or, at least, most indisputable argument in favor of some sort of soul or existence beyond the physical realm.  But do we know what that existence is, beyond pure speculation?

     Finally, I approached my computer this morning with absolute confidence that birdsong would have been figured out.  That was naive on my part, given the difficulty in interviewing birds.  Why do birds sing, I wondered.  Why do they sing more enthusiastically in the morning?  And what’s the story with the mockingbird, impishly running through a repertoire of songs?

     After what have doubtlessly been thousands of years of contemplation and study, human knowledge has only assembled the obvious theories for why birds sing: to attract a mate and to mark territory.  Did you know that the vast majority of singers are males?  At least that nugget of knowledge is verifiable.

     As to the preference for morning singing, theories range from the faux-scientific to the purely speculative.  Mostly, they contend that there is less humidity in the mornings and less wind, so voices can travel farther, though that does not take into account that the greater singing competition in the morning makes a cacophony that drowns out the otherwise more effective singing.

     Some observers think that birds sing in the morning because they have more energy when they wake up and, since singing takes a lot of energy, that is when they are more capable.  Conversely, a bird might not have a preference for morning singing; he is just too exhausted at the end of a day of searching for food and love and avoiding predators to put on much of a concert.  Speaking of predators, doesn’t a bird announce to one and all his location by singing?  Isn’t that a bad idea?  Truthfully, though PhD’s have been minted on the subject, no one really knows.

     I was confident that my scroll through the literature of birdsong would clarify the purpose and effect of mockingbird singing.  Scientific analysis has quantified that a mockingbird can imitate between 50 and 200 songs!  Are other birds impressed by this skill?  Do they hate the mockingbird for the confusion that he he wreaks?

     It turns out that most of what the mockingbird sings is merely fragmentary.  Few other birds are fooled, though some are.  Why, then, does the mockingbird do this?  To irritate gullible birds?  To wake sleepy humans?  Brilliant scientists theorize that the more tunes a male can imitate, the more impressive he is to female mockingbirds.  Presumably, they monitor the extent of his repertoire and, if it is extensive, conclude that he is a promising mate.  A profligate singer, it is speculated, will be better at finding food, building nests, fighting enemies and producing offspring.

     To me, this sounds like an exceedingly anthropromorphic analysis, ascribing human motivations and conclusions to an unknowable subject.  But what do I know?  All the preceding distillation of research is attainable by anyone with a computer and an available hour.  For all their similarities, have the three subjects of this essay previously appeared together in one piece?  I doubt it, but to boast would be obnoxious.  I wouldn’t dream of it.

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