When I was a kid, I read a comic book, set in ancient times, long before the first bird field guide had been created. The people referred to a flock of geese in the sky in their traditional V as ‘A flock of honkers. A sure sign of spring’. I loved the idea that they were called honkers because that is just what they are, and you can often hear them long before you can spot them in the sky.
For some primordial reason, when I hear a flock of honkers, I am usually compelled to rush outside and watch them fly over. For some reason, hearing and seeing them often makes one feel better.
Nowadays, you can look up on the internet various explanations of what they are doing and why. Apparently, they start honking as the flock is taking off, presumably to let all the other geese know that it’s time to leave. Then they honk during their flight, so that they can organize themselves into the V and maintain their position. The V makes the flock more aerodynamic, and they periodically change position because breaking trail in the air uses more energy for the leaders. Geese will also honk when on the ground to scare away predators or to attract a mate. These assumptions seem reasonable.
In public school, I happened to write in an essay that the birds were “talking” to one another. I got a rather long lecture from the teacher that I was wrong and basically being somewhat misguided and stupid. The teacher insisted that they weren’t talking to each other, because only humans talked. Critters were simply making meaningless noises. I had learned, at an early age, that it wasn’t a good idea to argue, debate or try to reason with adults or teachers, especially ones who took their beliefs seriously.
I held my tongue but wanted to point out that humans did the same thing, and if you didn’t know their language, it just sounds like meaningless babble. Noise for the sake of noise. So, there is lots of information about why the birds may make noises to one another, but not much on what they may be saying. I suspect that they are talking to one another but just have a much smaller vocabulary than most humans.
Someday I predict computers filled with all sorts of artificial and real intelligence will come along that can translate animal noises into human speech. Imagine turning your machine on as it listens to a flight of geese and when you hit the translation button you hear the birds singing. “Flap flap flap your wings/As we soar across the sky/Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily/ That is how we fly. “
Maybe like humans, birds sing to bond with one another and to help them do chores. Have you ever seen a film of soldiers training and as they’re marching along, they sing a song to keep their morale up, to help them bond and to give them energy “ Sound off 1, 2/sound off 3, 4/1,2,3,4” then they sing a little song like “Birdy, birdy in the sky/Dropped a whitewash in my eye/I’m no wimp, I won’t cry/I’m just glad, cows don’t fly.”
The sound-off cadence, known as the Duckworth Chant, was created in 1944 by a private in the U.S. Army named Willie Lee Duckworth while on a long march.
Now if humans sing little ditties, why wouldn’t other critters? People talk about wolves howling at the moon but are they howling, singing, or passing information on to other wolves or critters? Maybe they are saying “Hey this is our turf and if you can hear this, then you are too close.”
So the next time you hear a flock of geese honking by, why not sing along with them? Or if you are on a long hike and tired, singing a little song may keep you going. “March, march, marching along/I wish I was a goose and could fly instead.”