Although he certainly cites scientific studies a great deal, Rothenberg obviously has no affinity or knack for the nuances of scientific thought, which leads him to continually bring up conclusions and observations that he then dismisses as being so obviously insufficient to explain the beauty of birdsong. As a reader who likes the "natural sciences" and doesn't think they claim to explain beauty and art away, I sometimes wish he'd done a deeper investigation into some of the ideas. For instance, when talking about complex plumage and birdsong as ways of attracting mates, he refers to the scientific theory of the "handicap," that animals with physical attributes or behaviors that might seem detrimental to survival flaunt these things as a way of saying, "Hey, look, I have a ridiculously long and brightly-colored tail, and I'm still better than all the other males at escaping predators--so I must be extra strong and fast." Rothenberg then goes on to say that this theory is insulting and demeaning as a way of explaining birdsong--that it is simply unsatisfying to see natural beauty and music as "handicaps" of an animal.
But personally, I think of the skylark--a bird which is unique in its ability to sing while in flight. Singing takes so much energy that most birds cannot do both. While beig pursued by a predator, the skylark sings loudly and marvelously, as a way of declaring that it is strong and healthy and that it can afford to waste energy singing even when fleeing for its life. This is an example of the "handicap" theory--you would think natural selection would favor birds that conserve their energy and escape predators more efficiently--but to me, it also seems a perfect and moving example of beauty for its own sake and the stubborn triumph of song. Rothenberg is silent on the possibility that beauty-as-handicap is itself an inspiring idea.
In any case, thus far the topics that Rothenberg handles best--and what I find most fruitful and fascinating about the book--is the relationship between birdsong and human language, whether that language is poetry or music. The book is full of excerpts of poetry inspired by birds and their singing, as well as examples of attempts to transliterate or transcribe birdsong into musical notational or pronounceable syllables for the human tongue. Many of these border on poetry or, in the case of old sonograms, visual art. For these bits alone, the book was worth the price (and, I have a feeling, the audio CD of improvisational musical performances of the author with live birds may also prove rewarding).
One new poem I have discovered through this book is "The Singing," by Kim Addonizio. The excerpt included in Why Birds Sing is as follows:
I could say it's the bird of my loneliness
asking, as usual, for love, for more anyway than I have, I could as easily call it
grief, ambition, knot of self that won't untangle, fear of my own heart. All
I can do is listen to the way it keeps on, as if it's enough just to launch a voice
against stillness, even a voice that says so little, that no one is likely to answer
with anything but sorrow, and their own confusion.
A reading of the full poem is available here. Reading this excerpt reminds me of a poem that I wrote after attending a concert by Steve Vai and listening to an encore performance of his largely improvisational, meditative hymn, "For the Love of God" (a new, orchestral version available on Vai's MySpace page)--the same sense of the ever-deepening community of sound which has no clearly-defined "meaning" in the linguistic sense. Strangely enough, although I was very moved by Addonizio's poem on the page, I didn't much like her reading of it--her voice carries a kind of forced lilt that many poets adopt when performing their poetry which, in this case, seemed to trivialize or downplay the musicality of the birdsong she was recalling. Still, an excellent poem.