Mr. Finch

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No, not Atticus — this is Zebra Finch #2702, courtesy of Ofer Tchernichovski.

He sounds like this:

Or, slowed down by a factor of four:

This came up because I'm working on a project with Ofer and Didier Demolin, and in the course of figuring out how to parse zebra finch recordings, I thought it might help to listen to slowed-down versions. It wasn't all that helpful in the end — it's actually easier to hear the structure in the original version, I think.

But the slowed-down version has some unexpectedly half-humanoid bits mixed in with the barks and squeaks, like maybe an alien singing to itself in a Charles Stross story.


  1. Ken Miner said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

    I've noticed that if you speed up whale sounds, you get what sound very much like bird songs. (Actually I was not the first person to notice this.) I always wondered if it works the other way around (and if so, what it might mean), but never got around to trying it.

  2. Eric P Smith said,

    July 11, 2015 @ 8:52 pm

    What I suspect it means is that the mental processes of birds and other small animals are faster than those of large animals.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 12, 2015 @ 8:06 am

    Certainly the physical processes of small animals are faster. For instance, a songbird can turn around much faster than a whale. I don't see why this wouldn't also apply to their vocal organs.

  4. AntC said,

    July 12, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

    Isn't there a simpler explanation? Birds sing in air. Whales 'sing' in water.

    We need an experiment to see how birds sound singing under water. (And whales sound singing from the tops of trees ;-)

    More seriously: if we speed up whales; slow down birds; and normalise land-dwelling animals to a common tonal range, do we get similar 'syntactic' patterning across all species?

  5. Ken Miner said,

    July 12, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

    Still more seriously, I was thinking of the extent to which SETI takes into account line speed. It is logically possible that aliens are so constructed that for them a typical electromagnetic message is, say, a signal per one of our years. Would we ever read intelligence into it?

  6. Mary Kuhner said,

    July 12, 2015 @ 7:16 pm

    My cats are generally indifferent to computer sounds–video games, music, movies, it doesn't matter, they don't care. But the 1/4x zebra finch recording got the male cat up on the table with his face pressed against my computer!

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 12, 2015 @ 10:25 pm

    AntC: From what I see at Wikipedia, whales produce their sounds in air spaces inside their heads, so I don't think the water has much to do with it.

    Maybe size doesn't either, contrary to my suggestion. Dolphin clicks are very fast.

    Ken Miner: As I said the last time that subject came up here, try Katherine MacLean's story "Pictures Don't Lie", from 1954. Apparently there's a similar theme in an episode of the original Star Trek, "In the Wink of an Eye".

  8. Ken Miner said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 2:19 am

    Jerry Friedman: yeah, I was thinking it might be a good SciFi plot idea. But I'd really like to read the earlier discussion. I searched "SETI" and found zip. Anybody remember the title of the original post?

  9. Bean said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 6:22 am

    Not all marine mammals make sounds for the same purpose. Dolphin clicks are for echolocation, not communication. They can steer their sonar beams as well, to hone in and get more information on an "interesting" object, which I think is really cool. Bats are really neat too, I remember seeing a talk about one species of bat that adjusted its pitch as it approached a wall: it was trying to keep the Doppler shift constant as its speed and angle of attack varied.

    As for whale calls: the sounds that are indeed produced for communication travel through water before being detected/perceived by their friends (or whoever they're communicating with), so they are "optimized" for communicating through the water medium, regardless of the mechanism of production. Very low frequency calls from, e.g., blue whales (~ 20 Hz), can travel across an ocean basin if they are produced at the right depth…again, this must be a desirable feature, evolutionally speaking. I have no idea what they're trying to say to each other, though. In general, humans haven't really figured out the meaning or intent behind most whale calls, if by "whale calls" you take the entire set of all marine mammal calls ever recorded or suspected in underwater recordings, and not just the popular ones in movies or aquariums or science documentaries.

  10. Nik Berry said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 6:25 am

    There's definitely something Sino-Tibetan going on there.

  11. enkiv2 said,

    July 13, 2015 @ 11:20 am

    Compare to slowed down cricket songs (which several people have compared to church choirs). I think Jerry Friedman's suggestion is probably correct — after all, nobody's going to claim that crickets are more intelligent than human beings. Instead, if the thing that's vibrating is shorter, you'll get a higher resonant frequency, so smaller animals tend to make higher-pitched sounds.

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