From time to time I get to musing on all manner of things here on The Cow, and today I bring you some thoughts about nature and self-similarity.

This morning at dawn I was lying half-awake listening to the song of a chirpy early-rising Turdus merula, better known as the Common Blackbird. The Blackbird was introduced to Australia, in Melbourne where I am now living, in the 1850s as part of the regrettable We-Wish-It-Was-More-Like-England makeover that the colonists were hell-bent on giving this completely un-Englandlike continent.

The Blackbird’s song is very pretty and very recognizable – listen to the end part of this sample:*

What I realized as I was listening though, was that the little guy† wasn’t just doing the same exact phrase over and over – there were little variations each and every time – just like he was improvising on his little blackbirdy theme. No two riffs were exactly alike.

This got me to speculating about another well-known natural phenomenon in which no two elements are exactly alike, but are very similar in structure and beauty and precision: the snowflake.

Some Snowflakes

And so I began to wonder if the song of the Common Blackbird might in fact be the aural equivalent of the crystalline structure of the snowflake.‡

I don’t really know why I should have made that connection, but there you go. Put it down to my hypnopompic state if you like. But I leave you with this thought: self-similarity is rife in nature. It is embedded everywhere from the mathematics of fractals to the formation of snow crystals and the songs of birds. Its presence is felt in almost every natural process somehow or other. Think about it: it really does not need to be this way. All things considered, the natural world could be completely random. And yet order arises spontaneously everywhere it can.

The reasons for this remain a beautiful mystery.


*This recording by Fred Van Gessel. I pinched it, so for my atonement I urge you to go buy his recording Bird Calls of the Greater Sydney Region from the Australian Museum Shop.

†It was most likely a male territorial song.

‡For a totally absorbing read, go visit this website dedicated to the fastidious, and one must say, obsessive, Wilson Bentley, a man who dedicated his life to the observation and photographic recording of snow crystals.