1635: Birdsong

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Maybe if I put it in a box for a while with a speaker playing some pleasant pastoral music, I can reprogram it.
Title text: Maybe if I put it in a box for a while with a speaker playing some pleasant pastoral music, I can reprogram it.


The comic shows Cueball walking and singing along with the songbird singing above him; Cueball is apparently enjoying the perfect weather and the birdsong as he comments on both. In the next panel, the bird continues to sing but now it sings actual words (to the song "Smooth" (official video) by Santana featuring Rob Thomas). This gives the word songbird a completely new meaning. The bird's singing begins to annoy Cueball, so he chases the bird with a butterfly net in an attempt to catch it. Meanwhile, the bird just continues with the song. (Interestingly, the two lines from the last two panels follow each other in the song, but Cueball manages to get hold of the net in between).

The lines the bird sings are (most) of the last three lines from the chorus (see the lyrics):

  • And it's just like the ocean under the moon
  • Well, that's the same as the emotion that I get from you
  • You got the kind of loving that can be so smooth, yeah.
  • Gimme your heart, make it real
  • Or else forget about it

The comic is a play on the words bird and song. Songbirds, of course, don't actually sing: the sounds they make are territorial challenges, mating cries, etc. But in Western cultural traditions, particularly the pastoral one, imagining these sounds as 'song' is part of seeing nature as beautiful and harmonious. Ironically, the fact that this bird is really singing pop music is perceived by Cueball to be an intrusion.

In the title text Cueball suggest playing pastoral music to 'reprogram' the bird, which is of course an even more unnatural intervention - all with the purpose of restoring the pastoral naturalness of the bird. Of course, some birds can actually emulate human words, and in this way also sing real words, like with the common hill myna. Other birds can mimic any odd and unusual sounds, particularly the lyrebird of Australia is known to reproduce all types of sounds from chainsaws to barking dogs and certainly also music.

The title text of "reprogramming" the bird by placing it in a box also refers to B.F. Skinner and his development of programmed learning through his theories of operant conditioning and behaviorism in psychology. By famously using birds in so-called Skinner boxes, he conditioned birds to respond to certain stimuli and expect rewards for particular behaviors, leading to an understanding of many impulsive behaviors in humans like addiction. Cueball apparently hopes to "correct" the bird and its song through this method.

Animal conditioning was also referred to in 1156: Conditioning.

Lately Randall has had his characters catch several things (but never butterflies) with a butterfly net; most recently in 1622: Henge, where it was the Sun that was caught in the net.


[Cueball is walking and talking, while a bird, flying above him is singing, with four notes floating around it to indicate this. The notes are clearly above and removed from Cueball's text.]
Cueball (singing): The sun is shining, the birds are singing—
[Cueball stops and looks up when the bird above him starts to sing using human language; four notes are floating around the text. The text of the bird's song is in italic text to indicate this.]
Bird (singing): Got the kind of lovin' that can be so smooth, yeah
[Cueball looks down and black smoke emanates from the top of his head. The bird now flies above the panel but still sings in human language, four notes are floating below the text.]
Bird (singing - off-panel): Give me your heart, make it real
[Cueball is chasing the bird with a butterfly net, the bird is flying away from Cueball, continuing to sing, four notes are floating around the text.]
Bird (singing): Or else forget about it

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Cueball could instead be trying to capture it to figure out how what appears to be a regular bird can sing human lyrics, seeing as birds do not have anything resembling the human pharynx or diaphragm, as birds use a system of air sacs to push air into their lungs, analogous to how a mammalian heart moves blood. 13:09, 27 January 2016 (UTC) Dom Vasta

However, birds split the actions of each side of their trachea to vocalise two notes at once, which gives those already capable of imitating human speech (or other anthropogenic sounds) more capability than a human to sing lyrics. That they lack understanding of what they are hearing (certain study parrots possibly excepted) deprives them of the ability to sing meaningful duets with themselves, but those capable of mimicry clearly have the basic ability to sing two independent voices at once, or a single distinctive voice with at least a simple musical accompaniment of an appropriate register, were they so inclined to separate the 'channels' and not just squish it as if into a mono 'recording' of composite sounds anyway. 13:58, 27 January 2016 (UTC)
The interesting thing is that there's little strong evidence that even smaller birds /can't/ learn to speak in some degree. While researching the topic, I found a paper which makes a convincing mathematical argument that language formation is very unlikely in nature. http://rsif.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/10/88/20130520
That would make no sense together with the title text. Before reading this it more seems he would remove the bird from his perfect world, giving his look in the third panel! --Kynde (talk) 16:18, 27 January 2016 (UTC)
The study remarkably shows how language would evolve. On the other hand, I laughed quite hard when they tried, in a deus ex machina way, to pull out of a hat the conclusion that 'humans are unique because they already have the ability to process language'. Is that not an obvious sentiment that has nothing to do with their prior research? They proved how difficult language is for nature to develop, but not that it is limited to humans. Rather, they showed that any individual can evolve which has the capacity to understand language, but that the individual requires others with the same capacity in order to benefit enough not to be selected against by evolution.
So, if you could find a few birds with a predisposition to language, you may be able to make this happen. Getting them to understand the song on the other hand, would prove difficult. 14:47, 27 January 2016 (UTC)

Am I the only one who thought of Undertale from the first panel? 13:56, 27 January 2016 (UTC)

I believe that you are experiencing Pareidolia. 14:02, 27 January 2016 (UTC)
True to the pareidolia - see also 1551: Pluto ;-) --Kynde (talk) 16:18, 27 January 2016 (UTC)

The second panel immediately reminded me of that unusual phenomenon of birds mimicking ringtones and other incidental human sounds such as car alarms, substituting their natural and beautiful "songs" for our feeble attempts. Rotan (talk) 01:05, 28 January 2016 (UTC)

You mean like this? I wouldn't be surprised if that was an ispiration for this comic... NiceGuy1 (talk) 07:54, 9 June 2017 (UTC)

The titletext could also be seen as referencing this episode of Scenes From A Multiverse. Doubtful, as (to my knowledge) Randall has never expressed a particular love of that comic, but possible. 20:35, 27 January 2016 (UTC)

So, I'm not going to outright delete it since it is rather interesting, but those are some pretty serious Undertale spoilers in the explanation. Could we give that part of the description (especially the part about the ending of the Genocide Run) some kind of spoiler tag, if we don't want to just remove it? 20:52, 27 January 2016 (UTC)

Am I the only one to think that panel 3 represents that age-old truth that a bird in the hand is safer than one overhead? Helping to explain Cueball's irritation, and the butterfly net.-- 06:04, 28 January 2016 (UTC)

Someone did delete it all. I have no knowledge of Undertale, and though it far out when first mentioned above, but after reading the now deleted explanation, it seemed like a possible reference by Randall... Should it be deleted completely? Anyway, if anyone is interested in that part of the explanation, and do not care for SPOILERS, then read this version from just before the deletion. --Kynde (talk) 13:09, 28 January 2016 (UTC)
It is not a reference to Undertale. It is more than likely a case of pareidolia from the editor having played Undertale recently and remembering the scenario. The comic is clearly a reference to the Santana song as the lyrics fit perfectly and it makes sense with the joke, and that leaves no evidence to it being a reference to the video game. 20:13, 1 February 2016 (UTC)

Does anyone else wonder if this is a shout out to the comic that ended the main run of "A Softer World"? It starts out as "The sun is shining/and the birds are singing"... (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

My initial take was that Cueball thought "Holy crap, a bird that actually sings with words! That would be crazy valuable! I gotta go get it! Being rich will make me happier than I just was!" :) The fact that they're singing different songs makes the explanation's interpretation seem more likely, that he wants to recapture his idyllic conditions, but I think my interpretation is worth noting. - NiceGuy1 04:55, 20 February 2016 (UTC) I finally signed up! This comment is mine. NiceGuy1 (talk) 07:40, 9 June 2017 (UTC)