Bird Metre

After days of grey skies and rain showers, through 4:00 a.m. stillness burst joyous bird song announcing first glimmers of light. 

I lay in bed, listening. Not only was the singing lovely, it even had a pattern: one strong long note, followed by two shorter and softer—like a dactylic1 foot in poetry!—which repeated three times. Then a new2 pattern began: one short note, a caesura, and two more short. This foot also repeated three times.

Farther away sounded four quick light notes—a proceleusmatic3 foot. After a caesura, the four notes rippled to seven. With another caesura, the pace picked up even more, expanding to a surprising ten quick notes in rhythm, finally tapering to pairs of quick anapaests4 in alternating tones, before fading into a few scattered tweets.

What a contrast, I thought, to the cry of a mourning dove5. Separated by two caesuras, her plaintive three long notes always reminded me of a new widow calling out to her deceased spouse, “Where—Are—You?”, over and over again.

So birds, like us, had metre! Except theirs was richer. Every morning now I listen. What other inventive patterns might there be? Free from the page, the birds enjoyed an advantage. Not only could they vary their notes’ number, combination, and duration. They also could adjust the tone lighter or darker of an individual note, sometimes brighter on opening a foot, then quieter on closing, as if an echo, thus giving a roundness, a third dimension, to their song.


1. Dactylic feet:   — ᴗᴗ      — ᴗᴗ     — ᴗᴗ

2. New pattern:    ᴗ # ᴗᴗ        ᴗ # ᴗᴗ        ᴗ # ᴗᴗ          

3. Proceleusmatic feet:       ᴗᴗᴗᴗ   #      ᴗᴗᴗᴗᴗᴗᴗ      #     ᴗᴗᴗᴗᴗᴗᴗ ᴗᴗᴗ   

4. Anapaestic feet:     ᴗᴗ —     ᴗᴗ —       

 5. Mourning dove:      # — # —       — # — # —      — # — #