I heard a chorus of birds in the distance as I ate my cereal in the early morning light on my deck. They were all singing the same trill of notes, and trying to do it at the same time. I didn't recognize the birdsong, so the only thing that came to mind was the mockingjays from Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. Well, with myself on the outside of some delicious breakfast, my brain had the go juice to ponder what kind of bird I'd create, based solely on a unison tune.
Here's what I came up with:
Part parrot for intelligence and mimicry, though only of song. Part beetle (I can't remember which kind, alas) for the group competition to be the first/fastest (I saw a video of several male beetles surrounding a female, waving an arm up and down in almost perfect unison. The female picked the one who moved first.). Part bird of paradise for the showy hopping rituals.Whistling language borrowed from the Canary Islands, and parts of Greece, Turkey, France, Mexico, and Africa.
Okay, cool, but what do I do with him? Where do I put him?
Ah, yes. I have a whole new world I've been building for several years now. I'll put him there, in the mountainous forests inhabited by my version of the wagon-traveling gypsies (more on them in another post).
The upland gypsies capture minstrelbirds using a small, deft child and a plate of grubs rolled in berry honey. Jesses keep the bird from flying away, but let him feel he can still flap his wings. Minstrelbirds who were confined in cages invariably died of depression before they could learn the gypsies' songs. A particular whistle song is constructed and taught to the minstrelbird over the course of a few weeks, until the bird begins to mimic it.
Usual song subjects include dangerous passage, like a bridge or road washing out, or directions to a welcoming home for the night. Other songs direct travelers away from certain hunting grounds, curmudgeons, or love interests. Pranks are occasionally employed using minstrelbirds, but due to the time involved, they nearly always border on grudges. Still, they are often epic in nature, and make the gossip rounds for years to come.
Once his song has been transformed, the bird is released into a part of the forest where his song will serve as informatory to passersby.Minstrelbirds are not picky about their dwellings, so they'll move right in on a nice sheltered branch. As a result of his new territory, the new bird will eventually end up challenging a local male for dominance in a rowdy sing-off. If he wins, all the nearby birds will use his song when they do their speed competing for mates and daily challenges for rights to feed or bathe first. If the bird loses his dominance challenge, the gypsies train another bird.
I already wanted to involve some kind of nearly secret society in my Aurora Meridiani series--secret by dint of location, not of scheming--and these minstrelbirds just add to the natural environment in which my people live. Well, one of my peoples: I have a dozen or so realms on the Peninsula. And I need a different name than "gypsies," obviously. Work, work, always work...