Tolstoy’s finch, linnet mania, and a false etymology of “shibboleth”

The following description of birdsong contests is taken from Josep Pla’s brilliant anecdotography of Rafael Puget, Un señor de Barcelona, and is mid- to late-19th century ():

Singing competitions

A fondness for birdsong has existed in Manlleu, Barcelona province for as far back as my memory reaches. The “Societat d’aucellistes”, the Society of Bird-Fanciers, is very old and used to organise annually in May bird singing contests which used to be held in Plaza de Dalt, Upper Square. A platform was erected and decorated with garlands of boxwood and asparagus, and on it were seated, along a long table, the members of the jury. The contest lasted a full day from dawn to dusk. At first light a huge coca, a Spanish-style pizza, was deposited on the table to satisfy the the appetite of the jurors. This court exercised its functions whilst eating coca–sometimes the slices served were of an imposing size–and drinking glasses of eau-de-vie.

Very early in the morning the contestants appeared with their cages and their birds, which they deposited upon the table.

The jury’s task was to listen to the calls of birds and, after each turn, put a little flag on cage of the bird which had just sung. These flags were used for the final classification. The spectacle frequently took me back to scenes from Die Meistersinger. It was, however, more complex. The birds in the cages entered into a frenetic and quarrelsome state, frantically clutching the bars of their cages with tense and violent attitudes. Free, the birds sing when they are in rut. Caged, I believe they sing out of fury, due to an uncontrollable explosion of delirium.

The contests were based, essentially, around four birds: greenfinches, goldfinches, linnets and finches [presumably other species and cross-breeds]. Enthusiasts accept unanimously that of these birds the best are the young born in spring (June). Those caged in autumn take a long time to sing, and it seems that being caged deprives them of drive and strength. The cage–let us say–makes them a bit sceptical. In contrast, March birds–novells, novices, in Catalan–have the vigour of youth and irresponsibility. They are caught with twigs [ie with bird-lime] in the first dawn of spring, which is to say, during the universal symphony of rutting.

There are two kinds of finches: those that sing in Manresa style and those that sing in Vic style. Everyone knows that the latter are considered better than the former, and that the calls of the Vic style are viewed as being of the highest quality. To distinguish the one type of song from the other one needs to be a specialist, as well as having a practised ear and the quid divinum of the matter.

The linnet has three calls, which the experts [onomatopÅ“iacally] call the viscum, the xibólit and the bisbibé.

The tone of the linnet’s call is very metallic; it has a [wheezy] throbbing, a crinc like a little silver bell. Up to two thousand pesetas have been paid for a good finch. This gives you an idea of how much its singing is appreciated.

The linnet sings with admirable bravura and has a prodigious fiatto [presumably Italian fiato, breath]; it is the strength of youth spilling freely through a young organ, tense and prodigious.

The linnet call known as xibólit is the capolavoro [master-piece] of what is conceivable in these matters. When an enthusiast discovers the existence in some place of a linnet which sings the xibólit, there occurs amongst the connoisseurs, once the ripple of astonishment which in all fields is caused by a vision of excelsitude has passed, an acute curiosity. In order to partake of such a marvel they are prepared to do all that is necessary. Sometimes they will take a taxi and have themselves driven to remote parts. From the road they will often walk for two or three hours without pause. On arriving at the place where the linnet has been heard, they will stay put in the vegetation as long as is necessary, whatever the weather, sometimes with their coat collars raised, their scarves wrapped round their noses, shivering with cold. And–of course–the linnet will sing… or it won’t. If it does not sing, there will come a time when the anxious wait has caused so much weariness that the enthusiast or enthusiasts must needs withdraw, bowed and downcast, their tails between their legs. But if it sings, My God, what heavenly bliss!

One day, in the environs of Vic there was caught a finch which bore on its neck a small mark written with letters never seen before. Monsignor Gudiol translated them and it turned out that the bird came from the depths of Russia, from Yasnaya Polyana, the famous village where Count Tolstoy had his estate. The surprise was great when it was found, once the finch was rested from its journey and had replenished its strength, that it did not sing in either the Manresa or Vic style, but emitted a completely unknown call.

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Concursos de canto

En Manlleu ha existido, hasta donde alcanza mi memoria, una gran afición por el canto de los pájaros. La «Societat d’aucellistes», que es muy antigua, organizaba cada año, en mayo, concursos de canto pajaril que solían celebrarse en la Plaza de Dalt. Se montaba una plataforma adornada con guirnaldas de boj y de esparraguera, sobre la cual se sentaban, frente a una larga mesa, los individuos del jurado. El concurso duraba un día completo de sol a sol. A primera hora se depositaba sobre la mesa una enorme coca a la disposición del apetito de los del jurado. Este tribunal realizaba sus funciones comiendo coca–a veces las tajadas que se servían eran de un tamaño imponente–y bebiendo copitas de aguardiente.

Muy de mañana aparecían los concursantes con sus jaulas y sus pajarillos que depositaban sobre la mesa.

La misión del jurado era escuchar los trinos de los pájaros; después de cada passada ponían una banderita en la jaula del pájaro que acababa de cantar. Estas banderitas servían para la clasificación definitiva. El espectáculo me retrotrayó muchas veces a las escenas de «los maestros cantores». Sin embargo, era mas complejo. Los pájaros de las jaulas entraban en un estado de frenesí y de pelea, se agarraban, frenéticos, a los barrotes de las jaulas en actitudes crispadas y violentas. En libertad, los pájaros cantan por el celo. Enjaulados, yo creo que cantan de rabia, en virtud de una explosión de delirio incontenible.

Los concursos se hacían a base, esencialmente, de cuatro pájaros: verderones, jilgueros, pardillos y pinzones. Los aficionados aceptan, universalmente, que de estos pájaros son mejores los jovenes nacidos en primavera (junio). Los enjaulados en otoño tardan mucho en cantar y al parecer la permanencia en la jaula les quita empuje y fuerza. La jaula–diríamos–les vuelve un poco escépticos. En cambio, los de marzo–los llamados novells–tienen el ímpetu de la juventud y de la inconsciencia. Éstos se cogen con ramo cuando apunta la primavera, es decir, en el momento de la sinfonia universal del celo.

Hay dos clases de pinzones: los que dan el canto manresano y los que dan el canto vigatano o vicense. Todo el mundo sabe que los segundos son considerados mejores que los primeros y que los trinos del canto vigatano son tenidos por los de más alta calidad. Para distinguir uno de otro de estos cantos se precisa ser un especialista y hay que tener el oído muy acostumbrado y poseer además el quid divinum de la materia.

El pardillo tiene tres passades, que los técnicos llaman el viscum, el xibólit y el bisbibé.

El pardillo tiene un tono de trino muy metálico; tiene una vibración, un crinc como una campanita de plata. De un buen pinzón se han llegado a pagar hasta dos mil pesetas. Esto le dará idea de hasta qué punto es apreciado su canto.

El pardillo canta con una admirable bravura y tiene un fiatto prodigioso; es la fuerza de la juventud derramándose, a caño libre, por un órgano joven, tenso y prodigioso.

La pasada del pardillo llamada xibólit es el capolavoro de lo que en estos asuntos pueda imaginarse. Cuando un aficionado descubre la existencia en un paraje cualquiera de un pardillo que da el xibólit se produce entre los conocedores, pasado el movimiento de estupor que en todos los terrenos produce la visión de lo excelso, una curiosidad vivísima. Para degustar tamaña maravilla están dispuestos a todo lo que convenga. A veces toman un taxi y se hacen conducir a lugares remotos. Desde la carretera, andan a menudo dos o tres horas seguidas. Ya en el paraje donde el pardillo ha sido escuchado, aguantan todo el tiempo que sea preciso en la espesura, haga el tiempo que haga, a veces con el cuello del abrigo levantado, la bufanda en la nariz, tiritando de frío. Y–claro está–el pardillo canta… o no canta. Si no canta, llega un momento en que la espera ansiosa ha producido tanta fatiga que el aficionado o aficionados se retiran mustios y cabizbajos y con la cola entre las piernas. Pero si canta, ¡Dios mío, qué celeste delicia!

Un día, en los alrededores de Vich fué cogido un pinzón que llevaba en el cuello una pequeña marca escrita con unas letras nunca vistas. Mossén Gudiol las tradujo y resultó que el pajarillo venía del fondo de Rusia, de Yasnaia—Poliana, el célebre pueblo donde el conde Tolstoi tenía su finca. La sorpresa fué grande cuando se constató, una vez el pinzón hubo descansado del viaje y repuestas sus fuerzas, que no cantaba ni manresano ni vigatano, sino que emitía un trino completamente desconocido.
)

If you meet what looks like a linnet but can’t say xibólit, then it’s probably a duck or a turkey and you can legally kill it and eat it. There’s a good piece on catching birds in Richard Kearton’s superb With nature and a camera. Being the adventures and observations of a field naturalist and an animal photographer (1898). Bird trapping using lime and several types of nets continues here, both legally (or at least I assume it is) and illegally. I think it would break my heart to eat pajarito frito, fried birdie. One theory I have is that the rapid drop in finch populations reported in the second half of the 20th century was caused by a decline of available protein from other sources in and after the last civil war. The pro-hunting lobby has been known to blame Anglocabrones for restrictions on their fun, but I’m also told that songbird training and contests were introduced by 19th century British miners and/or sailors. We giveth and we taketh away, and tough tittie.

I’ll explain some other day the rules for marking Spanish finch, canary and other songbird competitions. Suffice to say that there is no standard in nature and that agreeing one for nurture has been bedevilled by the same kind of localism plaguing any national agreements in this country. I am told that one of the problems faced by workers who came from Andalusia to live in Catalonia was that their birds’ prized skills were marked negatively in their new Heimat. I don’t think this greatly worries contemporary gypsy vendors.

My good friend Irina Love@Fascistbook told me that Maxim Gorky explained to Tolstoy what was a finch and what wasn’t, and dammit if the scene doesn’t show up on GBS :

He was sitting on a stone bench beneath the cypresses, shrivelled, small, grey, and yet like a Sabaoth, a little weary and trying to distract himself by imitating the warbling of a finch. The bird was singing in the dark green foliage, and Tolstoi was peering into the leaves, narrowing his small, keen eyes, thrusting out his lips like a baby and whistling feebly.

“The little thing is working itself into a frenzy! Just listen to it! What bird is it?”

And so forth.

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