City singers

Readers of this blog may know Charles Hartshorne as that process theologian who wrote books such as Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984), and used terms like “panentheism” (I first heard about him as one of the editors of the complete works of Charles Saunders Peirce, but then I was a philosophy major). But Hartshorne also was a serious amateur ornithologist who published a number of papers in the field, and wrote Born To Sing: An Interpretation and Survey of World Bird Song (1973).

In Born To Sing, Hartshorne begins by dismissing strict behaviorism as “inadequate, at least in the study of human beings; moreover, in view of the evolutionary continuity of life, and the ideal of a unitary explanation of nature as a whole, it seem unsatisfactory dualism to make man [sic] a mere exception.” Hartshorne does not believe that we can attribute human motives to non-human animals, but he does feel that animals can find aesthetic enjoyment in their own ways. This leads him to a serious consideration of the aesthetic elements of bird songs.

As part of his argument, he establishes criteria for determining highly developed or “superior” bird song, and based on these criteria he develops a list of 194 species of superior songsters. Less than twenty of these species are indigenous to North America, and only eight of those species breed in our immediate area.

On a walk today, from urban New Bedford over to densely suburban Fairhaven, we heard three of these eight species: Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, and Song Sparrow (links go to USGS site with recordings of their songs). And I heard at least one other of these species, the Carolina Wren, near our apartment earlier this spring. Suburbanites dismiss cities as bleak, forbidding places, but if you’re willing to look, it’s possible to find incredible natural beauty.