Thursday, January 20, 2011

Identifying Robins as Individuals, by their Song

If you think this post is not about tea, please bear with me! It is, but you have to read a bit to get there.

Pictured below is a Robin surrounded by holly berries; this picture was taken in Delaware several winters ago, but there's a similar sight here every year, as flocks of robins converge on the holly trees, stripping them of their berries, which are a favorite fruit for these flocking birds.

Robin songs are highly structured. When I was a kid, I used to listen to them, and, being the musician that I was, I quickly identified structure and pattern in the song. A robin's song is made up of individual syllables. If you labelled them, you might hear trends like ABAACABDEAA...BBABACEEBAFG.... etc. The more I listened to robins, the more structure I heard. I realized that certain syllables would be shared and repeated between different birds, but often, each bird would have a subtly different voice. Furthermore, as I travelled, I started to hear regional accents. But for the most part, robins all sounded more or less similar, and I was hopeless actually telling one bird apart from another by its song.

One day, after years of listening to robins, I had this amazing epiphany. I was lying awake in bed, in the dark, in the wee hours of the morning, before the sun had risen, and the window was open. It was like something clicked in my brain. Suddenly, all robins sounded completely distinct, just like people's voices. They all sounded like individuals to me.

This is a gift that has persisted ever since this day (although I have yet to develop the ability to do this with any other bird species). I can now tell robins apart when they sing, and if I listen to a robin sing over a period of time, I will now come to recognize it by its song--often it just has to sing a few syllables for me to know which one it is, with certainty. This new skill has opened up a new landscape of perception to me. Robins use song, among other things, to peacefully (without physical confrontation) defend and negotiate territories. I now can hear when robins move to different territories, and I can figure out how many distinct territories there are surrounding my yard just by listening.

Listening to robins is like tasting tea:

It's just tea, right? How much variability is there? Or...maybe there's green tea and black tea, but all black teas taste the same. Right? It sounds crazy to a tea enthusiast, but to someone who has never tasted tea before, it's likely to be true.

The way the brain works is that we often start off with only the capability for crude discernment. By paying attention, we start to distinguish further nuances. We have that "Aha!" moment when we realize that we know what Darjeeling tastes like, or when we smell a cup of tea and know immediately that it is a pan-fired green tea, and have a good guess that it might be from Zhejiang province. We're all at different places on this road, and most of us are better at identifying certain classes of teas than others--undoubtedly, the ones that we enjoy most and are most familiar with.

But the point is, we get better at it. And in general, we get better at discerning objects of one class by exposing ourselves to and focusing on many different objects of that class. If you want to learn to tell apart Sencha from different regions in Japan, keep drinking Sencha from different regions, and keep paying attention to how it tastes.

This is why I like tea, and is one key reason that I pay a lot of attention to food in general.

It's definitely not the snobbery of connoisseurship that attracts me to the world of loose tea. I'm drawn in by the fact that becoming more knowledgeable about food hones the senses. Paying attention to the finer details of aroma and flavor is a process that stimulates the mind, helping you to develop new abilities of perception. I think this is a good general skill to have, as it's useful in virtually all aspects of life. And it's fun!

So, drink your tea and listen to how it tastes, listen to the birds, stop and smell the roses, pay attention to the nuances of people's body language while you people watch, look carefully at the weeds growing in your flower bed, listen to that background line you never noticed before in a familiar song, or find your own other way of experiencing this perceptual adventure. You never know where it is going to lead!


  1. First off, I have to say how cool it is that you can distinguish one robin from another simply by its song!

    Someday, I hope to have developed the same skill when it comes to tasting tea. I’ve come a long way in the last five months, yet still nowhere near being able to differentiate one tea from another purely by taste.

    Although, this is what keeps me fascinated about tea drinking, it is the nuance of flavors. Plus, I find it soothing to focus on what I’m tasting rather than rushing through the day. I’ve also been trying to apply this mindfulness approach to what I eat, but that has been a little bit more of a challenge!

  2. Oh yes, every now and then I come to a different place with a tea and can find nuances I never found before. It is such a neat experience!