Review: Birdsong by the Seasons: A Year of Listening to Birds, Donald Kroodsma, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

Birdsong by the Seasons: A Year of Listening to Birds
, Donald Kroodsma, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

Dateline: Kearney, Nebraska. Sometime in the third week of March: A school bus dropped us in a cornfield. It was late afternoon. The temperatures were already down into the single digits. Snow was threatening, and there was a stiff breeze out of the north. We were planning to spend the next three and a half hours in a blind waiting for Sandhill cranes to return to their roost in the Platte River. Since I was with a group which included Peter Mattiessen, George Archibald, and Paul Johnsgard we were assigned to the VIP blind at Audubon’s Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary. The blind consisted of a few hay bales and some netting. It was completely open to the wind, but it was the only blind that offered completely unobstructed views up and down the river. Just as my feet were starting to loose all sensation the first birds appeared on the horizon. Maybe ten or fifteen of them. As they approached the river on outstretched wings with their feet dangling below them, they rocked from side to side dumping air from under their wings to alight in the shallow water in front of our blind. As the sun kissed the horizon the sky was all cranes. Waves of them coming from every direction. Wave after endless wave for as far as we could see, the stippled orange and black sky was all cranes. Then the river was all cranes. Cranes and nervous energy. Maybe ten thousand cranes in one field of view! Little clusters of them for as far as the eye could see. They contended for space toward the center of a group pushing the younger birds toward the more exposed perimeter. The displaced birds loudly protested their disrespectful removal to less desirable quarters. Calling. Jumping. Calling. Jostling. Rising and settling again. Calling. Calling. Constantly calling. The sound is indescribable and it is overwhelming. The calling died down a bit as the light disappeared, but it never stopped. When we returned before dawn the sound was still overwhelming.

If you want to know about cranes you have to listen. I mean really listen. Close your eyes and block out everything else and try to understand what their vocalizations reveal about their lives. I begin this essay with my first experience on the Platte because it was the first time that I remember becoming truly aware of bird vocalization as anything other than an aid to identification. My second awakening was sparked by Donald Kroodsma’s The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Kroodsma is a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and perhaps the foremost investigator of the vocal behavior of birds. The Singing Life of Birds explored (among other things) the ways in which young birds learn and produce song, the role of vocal behavior in mate selection and the subtleties and necessity of learning local dialects.

Now we are blessed with another enlightenment moment in Kroodsma’s latest opus, Birdsong By The Seasons, which is devoted entirely to the joy of listening to birds. This book is the reward of the author’s retirement from teaching. Freed from the demands of academia and scholarship, the author spent a year listening and recording. Just listening for the sheer joy of listening and gleaning whatever insights come from the collected sounds.

Before proceeding I hereby warn the reader that this is no armchair book. It requires active engagement. The book comes with two cds of the author’s recordings. Following Kroodsma’s recommendation, I downloaded Raven Light – a free program offered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology – which allows you to see graphic representations of the songs on the discs. I found that the best way to read the book was to first listen to the appropriate tracks and then read the corresponding chapter. Then listen again. Although this all sounds like too much work, I promise that you will be amply rewarded for the effort. The book and the discs are a pleasure. They are also a course on how to listen.

On January 2 – the day after his official retirement -- Kroodsma asserts his freedom by going out to listen to some robins. He sets up his recording equipment at a huge roost of robins and listens and watches as the birds settle in for the night and depart at dawn. He returns each night for weeks until the coldest stormiest night of the new year on January 16.

By 6:30, I sense an increasing restlessness, with more calls and more fluttering about on the perches. A fit of that sneezing sweeps contagiously through the nearby robins. A great horned owl hoots, the first I’ve heard this morning. Tension seems to build, the owl hooting again, and again, five times over five minutes, the robins’ calls becoming louder and more continuous, and at 6:38 I hear the roar of wings, then another roar, and another, as great hordes of robins lift off simultaneously (track 1-7). This is it! This is the moment! Accompanied by the continued hooting of the owl, thousands of robins now burst from the firs, streaming overhead, the roar wings and continuous calling almost deafening in my headphones (track 1-8).

Returning to his home and listening to his recording, Kroodsma continues:

The source of the robins’ consternation is a great horned owl, of course, and now I can both hear and see the entire sequence. The mystery sound is the owl flying into a fir tree, making a grab for a perched robin

Listening again to the discs my blood chilled by the realization that some of the sounds I was hearing on Kroodsma’s disc were the death throes of robins being eaten by an owl. Unbelievable!

Through the year, the author takes us from his home in Massachusetts to Florida to eavesdrop on Limpkins and Florida Scrub Jays. Then to the Platte River to listen to Cranes. And on through the country, the seasons, and the birds. Kroodsma is the Walt Whitman of ornithologists. Birdsong By The Seasons is the ballad of Kroodsma’s personal journey in which he re-discovers the pure joy of a pursuit he has followed throughout his professional life.

There are several stages in becoming an expert birdwatcher. The last and most difficult stage – the one separating the merely good from the expert -- is learning to identify birds by sound. Birdsong Through The Seasons illuminates another stage which most of us never realize is there – the stage in which all of your observational skills combine to form a grand unifying compound vision of our natural world.

Reading this book and listening to the discs is a rare treat. It will make you feel like you have never really listened before.

Wayne Mones
May 18, 2009

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