For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Kroodsma's Backyard Birdsong Guide
For the cost of four or five good cups of mocha, Don Kroodsma’s book shows us how to wake up with a lovelier jolt than caffeine, to a glorious world that has always been all around us and that is ours forever if only we open our ears and drink it in.
Luscious new book
As much as I love watching birds, my greatest joy is listening to them. When I started birding, I focused on sounds as a tool for identification so I could build up my life list. But I quickly discovered that bird sounds are far more than frequencies and note patterns. They’re the means by which individual birds communicate with one another. By paying attention, I learned some of what they were saying. When a robin made the high-pitched seeeee call, I followed its gaze to a hawk or falcon. When my backyard robins called tut tut tut, I moved away quickly, knowing it was I who was disturbing them. When a chickadee sang its Hey, sweetie! song, I knew he was a male establishing a territory and starting or sealing a bond with a female.
To learn bird songs when I first started birding, I tracked down every sound I heard outside, and watched every singer. That is still my favorite way of dealing with unfamiliar sounds. But I learned some bird sounds before I ever encountered them in nature by listening to my trusty Peterson bird records whenever I faced any tedious task like ironing clothes. It’s difficult to concentrate on recordings for too long—after five or six species, my brain started spacing out. But I stuck with it, and many of the songs stuck with me. Of course, even though recordings made ironing more pleasant, that experience paled in comparison with my greatest joy—getting outside to hear living, breathing birds awaken and break into full song before dawn.
As much as I recommend getting out there and tracking down every single sound you hear, that’s not always easy for normal busy people. Now Don Kroodsma, one of the world’s leading authorities on birdsong and the author of The Singing Life of Birds, has written The Backyard Birdsong Guide—a wonderfully accessible book with fascinating commentary about various vocalizations of 70 eastern species. But the book takes this to the next level, providing the actual sounds, right there in a speaker attached to the book cover. The sound quality is of course not as perfect as a CD, much less real live birds, but technology keeps improving and this book’s speakers produce surprisingly high-fidelity sound. It’s much easier to focus on sound recordings when a beautiful illustration of the singer and interesting text about it are right there too.
When Don Kroodsma writes about bird song, I listen. His introduction alone is worth the $25 price of the book. In simple but accurate prose, he covers why birds sing, where each bird gets his song, the differences between songs and calls, and, best of all, the practice of deep listening. He writes, “Picture our planet Earth as dawn’s first light and a burst of birdsong sweep the globe, racing continuously and endlessly from east to west at a clip of a thousand miles per hour, repeating every twenty-four hours. In North America, imagine riding this wave of light and song as it sweeps across eastern forests, the prairies, and western mountains.” Don’s splendid book, The Backyard Birdsong Guide, not only entices us to go out and experience that thrilling wave of light and sound—it also serves as a splendid interpreter so we will appreciate exactly what it is we’re hearing. For the cost of four or five good cups of mocha, his book shows us how to wake up with a lovelier jolt than caffeine, to a glorious world that has always been all around us and that is ours forever if only we open our ears and drink it in.