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Tome On The Range

Edward Avis And The Art Of Mimicry
Karl Smith , December 1st, 2013 13:48

In an extract from Caught by the River's latest Antidote to Indifference, 'A True Confluence of Currents', Cheryl Tipp explores the work and life of the celebrated bird imitator Edward Avis

On a cold January evening in 1908, members of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia gathered together at the George Washington University to hear the bird imitator Edward Avis deliver his lecture-recital 'An Evening in Birdland'. A review published in The Washington Herald said of Avis:

"His whistling is a natural gift, but his bird songs are the result of constant study and close companionship with birds. Mr Avis adopts a standard in his study of bird music. As he hears a bird's song, he writes it down, whistles it repeatedly, perfects it by study and practice, and the results are his wonderful little melodies. These melodies were a feature of his lecture last night. Stereopticon pictures were thrown on the screen, Mr Avis would whistle bird songs and one could almost imagine it was summer."

According to this review, Avis "was well known in the field of nature study". Described as a bird mimic, whistler and violinist, Avis used his talents to impress and educate parties across the United States. He made regular appearances at meetings of the Audubon Society, a leading American organisation dedicated to wildlife conservation, and is often noted in press records of the time as lecturing to various audiences, from school classrooms to church groups. Many of these events were linked to charitable causes and awareness programmes. In April 1909, Avis performed at the childrens annual matinee for the benefit of the New York Exchange for Women's Work. This organisation, founded in 1878, was a charitable institution that supported women who wished to gain income through the sale of handmade goods. Jugglers, talking marionettes, magicians, trained animals and even a trick pony made up the rest of the bill, with Avis closing the show with his illustrated talk on bird sounds and their homes. Later, in April 1917, Avis travelled to Ohio to take part in organised events for Arbor Day Week, a week surrounding the Arbor Day holiday where citizens were encouraged to plant and care for trees as a means of promoting conservation. With a combination of classroom lessons and evening entertainments, Avis "delightfully entertained the pupils by whistling the calls of many of our common birds". He also spent some time with the teachers, leading them on field trips where he could impart his knowledge of bird sounds to those who were responsible for educating the youth of Ohio's Mahoning County.

The popularity of bird imitators and whistlers had been steadily gathering steam during the latter half of the 19th Century. The rise of Vaudeville had presented opportunities for those blessed with the ability to imitate the songs and calls of common birds that would be familiar to the general public. The key to Vaudeville was variety and having an imitator or whistler on the bill usually keep the crowds in good spirits. The boundaries between bird imitators and whistlers often became blurred, with both terms being used to describe particular performers. Some clearly belonged in the whistler camp, where accuracy came second to pleasing melodies and generality. These performers were more interested in mass appeal; that’s not to say they didn't possess the skills to accurately mimic the songs and calls of birds, but when listening to recordings by the likes of Margaret McKee, Joe Belmont and Sibyl Sanderson Fagan, one can’t help but notice a lack of precision. There can be no doubt that all were highly accomplished whistlers with obvious talent, but being able to render exact imitations of bird sounds seems to have been of lesser importance, McKee did release a double-sided record entitled 'Our Favourite Songbirds' in 1921 (Gennett 4737) but both her stage career and discography were dominated by generic birdlike whistling that worked well alongside musical accompaniments. Avis on the other hand clearly sits with the bird imitators. He seems to have shunned the world of Vaudeville in favour of the more academic audience. Whether his style was too formal and didn't fit with the spirit of Vaudeville, or he simply wanted to focus his energies on audiences with a solid interest in wildlife, Avis does not appear to have broken into the more theatrical side of professional whistling.

On reading descriptions of Avis' illustrated lectures, it does appear as if his style was more suited to a stand alone performance. A detailed description of his most famous lecture, 'An Evening in Birdland' was included in the February 15th 1909 edition of The Day. The programme included:

  • Echoes from Birdland – whistling solo with violin accompaniment
  • A description of the habits, traits, songs and calls of the robin, Wilson thrush, wood thrush, brown thrasher, hermit thrush
  • Whistling solo – the canary
  • The Sparrow quintet
  • The Meadow Trio – Meadow lark, bobolink, robin
  • Whistling solo – the Mocking-bird
  • Finale – Birds in the fields and woods (40 whistled songs with accompanying slides)

    In addition to his regular appearance on the lecture circuit, Avis also added his name to a number of specialists who contributed to Columbia's commercial series of instructional and educational records. This series covered all manner of topics, from language lessons and self improvement courses to Native American songs and introductions to Morse Code.
    'An Evening in Birdland', usually delivered with the aid of magic lantern slides, was adapted to work as an audio only release and appeared in Columbia's catalogue in 1920 (Columbia A 2860). Other titles released around the same time included 'Bird Calls' (Columbia A 2832) and 'Day with the Birds' (Columbia A 3118).

    In 1927 Columbia released 'English Bird Imitations' (Columbia A 4263). Given the absolute accuracy of his imitations, Avis must have spent some time in England studying the songs of his subjects. None of these species occur in the United States and audio identification guides for European birds would not appear for another eight years. Such was the authenticity of his renditions of birds such as the Blackbird, Song Thrush, Chaffinch and Yellowhammer, that listeners would be hard pressed to tell whether it was Avis or the real thing. The typical gaps between song phrases, which would normally be heard in the natural world, were clearly absent but this was certainly down to limited playing time rather than a lack of knowledge. 'English Bird Imitations', though relatively niche in its content, remained in Columbia's catalogue for a decade.

    With the increasing popularity of radio during the 1920s, it wasn’t long before Avis' vocal talents could also be heard over the airwaves. No longer restricted to lecture theatres and school halls, Avis was able to share his whistling abilities with a national audience. He developed a strong connection with naturalist and author Thornton W. Burgess and regularly supplied the intros, endings and sound effects for sketches used in Burgess' Radio Nature League series. Burgess is best known for his series of children's books and newspaper column 'Bedtime Stories', but radio offered another avenue by which he could share his passion for conservation and love of wildlife.
    Occasionally Avis was given the opportunity to host a feature of his own and entertained listeners with his 'Birds Evening' concert. According to an article penned by Burgess for The Milwaukee Journal in 1926, Avis even broke a world record:

    "Last fall I ventured to claim a world’s record. It was undisputed. I claimed the long-distance record for calling birds and getting a reply. At that time I put on the air one night the call of the screech owl and immediately received letters stating that one owl 26 miles away had promptly answered the call, and that another owl, 50 miles away, had done the same thing. In both instances the windows of the houses were open and loud speakers used. The birds had replied from the trees near the houses. I was proud of that record. But it is mine no longer. A few weeks ago Mr Edward Avis, noted bird imitator, was good enough to give his bird songs as part of the Radio Nature League program. Immediately afterwards the following editorial appeared in the Lawrence Leader. The writer first expressed appreciation for the program and then said:

    Under the writer's piazza roof phoebes have made their summer home for years….. Everything was quiet until the imitator got around to the call of the phoebe. The sound was so distinct that the sleeping birds outside were aroused, and quick as a flash came an answering from their quarters……We thought it a very remarkable tribute to the abilities of the bird man.

    The distance between the studio of Station WBZ, at Springfield, Mass., and Lawrence where the phoebes were, is approximately 125 miles. So Mr Avis more than doubles my record for getting a long-distance reply from a bird. I suspect it will be a long time before this record is broken."

    Avis continued to enjoy success on the lecture circuit with high praise coming from esteemed institutions. One of the last references to Avis appeared in 27th April 1940 issue of The Lewiston Evening Journal. The day before over 300 individuals had gathered in the Araxine Wilkins Sawyer Memorial building in Greene, Maine, to experience his famed lecture recitals. Using a combination of slides, moving images, stories and whistled imitations, Avis took his audience on a "bird walk":

    "As he took his hearers along with him on these walks he called up birds along the way, explaining something of their habits, but particularly noting their songs. The bluebird, with its song “so soft and mellow that it melts the ice of early spring” really sang as the audience saw the pictured spring snow scene."

    The evening concluded with the recreation of a church scene:

    "With the aid of violin and a pictured church scene, Mr Avis allowed his audience to listen to the little church organ playing a familiar hymn as the wood peewee joined with his worshipful song."

    When browsing written records of the time one is acutely aware of an unwavering admiration for this highly skilled bird imitator. Always able to captivate his audience with a fusion of education and entertainment, he was in turn rewarded with glowing reviews. The Carnegie Academy of Science and Art wrote of Avis:

    "As a cultured musician, with the aid of a violin, and with his extraordinary whistling abilities, Edward Avis gives imitations of bird songs so realistic that one imagined the birds in his stereopticon views, which were reflected on the screen, had come to life."

    This statement is but one of many that collectively express feelings of respect, gratitude and wonder for a man who dedicated his life to bringing the sounds of nature to audiences across the United States. With wildlife sound recording still very much in its infancy and only a handful of commercial discs available to the general public, it fell to imitators like Avis to encourage an appreciation for the sonorous beauty of the natural world. He certainly achieved that.

    Issue Eight of An Antidate to Indifference is out now, available to order from Caught by the River

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