Birdsong battles: two versions

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I don't have anything relevant to say about last night's debates, so instead I'll point readers towards an entertaining contrast in the evolution of debate-like behavior.

We start with Emily Rueb, "Tiny Birds, Big Drama: Inside the World of the Birdmen of Queens", NYT 7/31/2015:

Ray Harinarain cut the lusty Hellcat engine of his Dodge Challenger and gently lifted his birdcage from the front seat.

Mr. Harinarain, a heating and air-conditioner repairman from Brooklyn, joined a procession of middle-aged men in fedoras and flat caps, cradling wood poles and cages the size of large shoe boxes, streaming into a pocket-size park in Richmond Hill, Queens, on a recent Sunday morning. The cages were blanketed in white coverlets, some trimmed with lace. Inside each one was a delicate songbird: a chestnut-bellied seed finch native to the northern parts of South America and the Caribbean.

Sundays are race days, though the events are not really races but speed-singing contests. Two cages each containing a male finch, whose fierce calls are triggered by an instinctive desire to woo females and defend turf, are hung on a pole about an inch apart. The birds are judged on the number of songs they sing. The first to reach 50 wins.

Ostensibly, it’s a battle of the birds. But there is just as much grandstanding by their male handlers. Many hail from Guyana, with others from Trinidad, Suriname and Brazil, places where amateurs and professionals line grassy roadsides and town squares, vying for trophies, cash prizes and prestige at tournaments or impromptu matches. Owning a champion, which can be worth as much as a car, also has cachet.

Compare Dan Bilefsky, "One-Ounce Belgian Idols Vie for Most Tweets Per Hour" NYT, 5/21/2007:

The timekeeper waves a large red flag. Spectators wait in hushed anticipation. The nearly 50 featherweight rivals — including Rambo and Duracel — are surrounded by nervous trainers.

But the event is not a boxing or a wrestling match. The one-ounce contestants, with gray caps and blue beaks, will be judged on how many “susk-e-wiets” they can tweet in an hour from inside a wooden box.

This is vinkensport, or finching, the 400-year-old Flemish competition in which winning finches are feted like feathered opera divas, and one false note, like a “susk-e-wiat” instead of a “susk-e-wiet,” can lead to disqualification or, worse, disgrace. […]

“As with any star athlete, like Lance Armstrong, what separates a champion bird from a loser is natural talent,” said Filip Santens, a leading vinkenier, who prepares his five-time champion chaffinch for matches by pumping heavy-metal Guns N’ Roses music into his cage and feeding him high-protein birdseed.

There are many formal as well as sociological differences in the Caribbean vs. Flemish finch debating formats: time to reach 50 songs vs. number of songs per hour; pair-wise individual matches vs. multiple runs in parallel: and so on.

I urge you to read the two linked articles in full.

And I look forward to further investigation of Caribbean finch-fighting, which I'm ashamed to say I never heard about before I read Emily Rueb's article a week ago. Meanwhile, here are a couple of earlier posts about the Flemish version:

"Watch out for those Wallonian finches", 5/22/2007
"Dialect variation in the terminal flourishes of Flemish chaffinches", 5/25/2007
"Finches again", 6/9/2007

And some posts about finch song science — which seems to be regrettably lacking in applications to finch-debate sports:

"Emergence of birdsong phonology", 10/11/2003
"Finch phrase structure", 10/1/2007
"Creole birdsong?", 5/9/2008
"Finch linguistics", 7/13/2011
"Markov's Heart of Darkness", 718/2011
"Non-markovian yawp", 9/18/2011
"Finch song learning in the news again", 6/30/2013

Update — last night's version, after all:


  1. Victor Mair said,

    August 7, 2015 @ 9:21 am

    I wouldn't want anyone to miss this awesome post:

    "Mr. Finch" (7/11/15)

  2. neil. said,

    August 7, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    I thought this would be commentary on Ronald Raven.

  3. Emily said,

    August 7, 2015 @ 3:48 pm

    From the article on Vinkensport: "Participants became suspicious at a recent contest where one finch sang 725 susk-e-wiets, the exact same number it managed in the previous two matches. When a judge ordered the cage opened, he discovered it contained a mini CD player."

    So if Trump's toupee comes off, might we find something similar?

  4. Rubrick said,

    August 7, 2015 @ 5:18 pm

    “As with any star athlete, like Lance Armstrong, what separates a champion bird from a loser is natural talent."

    That's… was that a not-very-subtle winking admission that the birds are doped?

    [(myl) From the 2007 NYT article:

    Some of Belgium’s 13,000 vinkeniers will still go to extremes in pursuit of bird-singing glory. Allegations of doping still follow Schauvlieghe (SHOHV-lee-egg), a legendary finch who flew away with the national championship a few years ago after serenading onlookers with an unprecedented 1,278 susk-e-wiets.

    Such Pavarotti-like endurance prompted accusations that his owner had injected the bird with testosterone (competing finches are always males; they sing to attract females and to mark their territory). The allegations were never proved, and Schauvlieghe, who has since died, retained his title.


  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 7, 2015 @ 11:00 pm

    If autotunability is a criterion, Rubio seems the clear winner, and Bush the loser.

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