Friday, August 6, 2021

The Common Glad Impulse

Prepared for a book-in-progress, Playing for Peace: Reclaiming our Human Nature.

William Henry Hudson was a naturalist and novelist of the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is perhaps best-known for his 1904 novel, Green Mansions, about a traveler to the Guyana jungle in Venezuela where he falls in love with Rima, an enchanting young who had an affinity for animals. Their relationship came to a tragic end.

Hudson also published numerous ornithological studies. The following passage is from W. H. Hudson, Chapter XIX, “Music and Dancing in Nature,” The Naturalist in La Plata, D. Appleton and Company, 1895. He assembled that book from material published in various popular magazines.

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In reading books of Natural History we meet with numerous instances of birds possessing the habit of assembling together, in many cases always at the same spot, to indulge in antics and dancing performances, with or without the accompaniment of music, vocal or instrumental; and by instrumental music is here meant all sounds other than vocal made habitually and during the more or less orderly performances; as, for instance, drumming and tapping noises; smiting of wings; and humming, whip-cracking, fan-shutting, grinding, scraping, and horn-blowing sounds, produced as a rule by the quills.

There are human dances, in which only one person performs at a time, the rest of the company looking on; and some birds, in widely separated genera, have dances of this kind. A striking example is the Rupicola, or cock of-the-rock, of tropical South America. A mossy level spot of earth surrounded by bushes is selected for a dancing-place, and kept well cleared of sticks and stones; round this area the birds assemble, when a cock-bird, with vivid orange-scarlet crest and plumage, steps into it, and, with spreading wings and tail, begins a series of movements as if dancing a minuet; finally, carried away with excitement, he leaps and gyrates in the most astonishing manner, until, becoming exhausted, he retires, and another bird takes his place.

In other species all the birds in a company unite in the set performances, and seem to obey an impulse which affects them simultaneously and in the same degree; but sometimes one bird prompts the others and takes a principal part. One of the most curious instances I have come across in reading is contained in Mr. Bigg-Wither’s Pioneering in South Brazil. He relates that one morning in the dense forest his attention was roused by the unwonted sound of a bird singing – songsters being rare in that district. His men, immediately they caught the sound, invited him to follow them, hinting that he would probably witness a very curious sight.

Cautiously making their way through the dense undergrowth, they finally came in sight of a small stony spot of ground, at the end of a tiny glade; and on this spot, some on the stone and some on the shrubs, were assembled a number of little birds, about the size of tom-tits, with lovely blue plumage and red top-knots. One was perched quite still on a twig, singing merrily, while the others were keeping time with wings and feet in a kind of dance, and all twittering an accompaniment. He watched them for some time, and was satisfied that they were having a ball and concert, and thoroughly enjoying themselves; they then became alarmed, and the performance abruptly terminated, the birds all going off in different directions. The natives told him that these little creatures were known as the “dancing birds.” [...]

Birds are more subject to this universal joyous instinct than mammals, and there are times when some species are constantly overflowing with it; and as they are so much freer than mammals, more buoyant and graceful in action, more loquacious, and have voices so much finer, their gladness shows itself in a greater variety of ways, with more regular and beautiful motions, and with melody. But every species, or group of species, has its own inherited form or style of performance; and, however rude and irregular this may be, as in the case of the pretended stampedes and fights of wild cattle, that is the form in which the feeling will always be expressed. If all men, at some exceedingly remote period in their history, had agreed to express the common glad impulse, which they now express in such an infinite variety of ways or do not express at all, by dancing a minuet, and minuet-dancing had at last come to be instinctive, and taken to spontaneously by children at an early period, just as they take to walking “on their hind legs,” man's case would be like that of the inferior animals.

I was one day watching a flock of plovers, quietly feeding on the ground, when, in a moment, all the birds were seized by a joyous madness, and each one, after making a vigorous peck at his nearest neighbour, began running wildly about, each trying in passing to peck other birds, while seeking by means of quick doublings to escape being pecked in turn. This species always expresses its glad impulse in the same way; but how different in form is this simple game of touch-who-touch-can from the triplet dances of the spur-winged lapwings, with their drumming music, pompous gestures, and military precision of movement! How different also from the aerial performance of another bird of the same family – the Brazilian stilt – in which one is pursued by the others, mounting upwards in a wild, eccentric flight until they are all but lost to view; and back to earth again, and then, skywards once more; the pursued bird when overtaken giving place to another individual, and the pursuing pack making the air ring with their melodious barking cries!

How different again are all these from the aerial pastimes of the snipe, in which the bird, in its violent descent, is able to produce such wonderful, far-reaching sounds with its tail-feathers! The snipe, as a rule, is a solitary bird, and, like the oscillating finch mentioned early in this paper, is content to practise its pastimes without a witness. In the gregarious kinds all perform together: for this feeling, like fear, is eminently contagious, and the sight of one bird mad with joy will quickly make the whole flock mad.

There are also species that always live in pairs, like the scissors-tails already mentioned, that periodically assemble in numbers for the purpose of display. The crested screamer, a very large bird, may also be mentioned: male and female sing somewhat harmoniously together, with voices of almost unparalleled power: but these birds also congregate in large numbers, and a thousand couples, or even several thousands, may be assembled together: and, at intervals, both by day and night, all sing in concert, their combined voices producing a thunderous melody which seems to shake the earth. As a rule, however, birds that live always in pairs do not assemble for the purpose of display, but the joyous instinct is expressed by duet-like performances between male and female. Thus, in the three South American Passerine families, the tyrant-birds, wood-hewers, and ant-thrushes, numbering together between eight and nine hundred species, a very large majority appear to have displays of this description.


  1. For some reason (s) the symbolic significance of birds in story has come to be associated with being earthbound, our "deliverance" or "redemption" framed as escaping, as birds do, the bonds to earth that are our lot and that keep us from fully realizing our place in the grand scheme of things. I've long thought that the symbolic significance of birds has more to do with what Hudson calls the glad impulse, what we might call joy. Instead of the bird (s) that symbolize getting us " out of here", the birds reveal the possibilities for a different way of being here. This is the difference between stories that stride by conflict in the search to "get out of here" and stories by revel in the processes of cooperation. But then, that is what you're writing about, eh?

    1. Interesting observation about how we think of birds. Bird flight vs. bird song.