Book reviews: Birds and bears

Published April 21, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America by Rick Wright, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Birders can be nerdy.

This is a book for sparrow nerds and would-be nerds.

There are three main parts to Wright’s multi-page treatment of each of 76 sparrow species or major subspecies: history of its scientific description and naming, field identification, and range and geographic variation.

Did you know the pink-sided junco (dark-eyed junco subspecies) has Wyoming roots? A Smithsonian collecting trip, the South Pass Wagon Road expedition, made it to Fort Bridger, in the far southwest corner of what is now Wyoming, in the spring of 1858. Constantin Charles Drexler, assistant to the surgeon, collected a sparrow identified as an Oregon junco and shipped it back to Washington, D.C.

About 40 years later, experts determined it was the earliest collected specimen of pink-sided junco and Drexler, who went on many more collecting forays, lives on, famous forever on the internet.

Wright’s feather by feather field identification comparisons will warm a birder’s heart, as will the multiple photos. However, over half of each account is devoted to range and geographic variation. No map. No list of subspecies by name. To the uninitiated, including me, apparently, Wright’s writing rambles. If you would become an expert on North American sparrows, you will have to study hard.

Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It’s here, the western counterpart of Nathan Pieplow’s eastern book I reviewed in July 2017, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/.

Each species gets a page with a small range map and a short description of habitat. The tiny painting of the male bird (and female if it looks different) is not going to help you with feather-splitting identification problems. It’s just a faster way to identify the page you want if you are already familiar with the bird. 

Each species’ page has diagrams of the sounds it makes, spectrograms. They aren’t too different from musical notation. The introduction will teach you how to read them. In addition to the standard index for a reference book or a field guide, there is an index of spectrograms. It works like a key, dividing bird sounds into seven categories and each of those are subdivided and each subdivision lists possible birds.

Then you go online to www.PetersonBirdSounds.com to listen. I looked up one of my favorite spring migrants, the lazuli bunting. There are 15 recordings. Birds can have regional accents, so it was nice to see recordings from Colorado, including some made by Pieplow, a Coloradoan. If you’ve ever wanted to study birdsongs and other bird sounds, this is the field guide for you. 

A Season on the Wind, Inside the World of Spring Migration by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I referenced the advance reading copy of this book a couple months ago when discussing the coming development of the wind farm at Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch. It gave me insights into the impact of wind energy on birds and bats.

The larger part of this book is about spring migration where birds and birdwatchers congregate in droves along the southwest shore of Lake Erie.

It’s as much about the birds as it is the community of birders, beginning with those year-round regulars at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory like Kaufman and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, the executive director, and the migrant birdwatchers who come from all over the world, some year after year.

Even if you know a lot about bird migration, this is worth a read just for the poetry of Kaufman’s prose as he describes how falling in love with Kimberly brought him to northwestern Ohio where he fell in love again, with the Black Swamp, a place pioneers avoided. 

Down the Mountain, The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear by Bryce Andrews, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Are you familiar with the genre “creative nonfiction”? It means a book or other piece of writing is factual, but uses literary conventions like plot, character, scene, suspense. This is a suspenseful story. We already expect a death, based on the book’s subtitle.

Rancher-writer-conservationist Andrews documents how a bear he refers to as Millie, an experienced mother with three cubs, gets in trouble in the Mission Valley of western Montana despite his efforts to protect her and other bears from their worst instincts.

Don’t turn out the lights too soon after following Andrews into the maze of field corn where grizzlies like to gather on a dark night.

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Bird book reviews: Weidensaul and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Jan. 31, 2016, “Two books suited for winter reading.”

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean,” by Scott Weidensaul. Part of the Peterson Reference Guide Series published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 333 pages, $40.

“The Living Bird, 100 Years of Listening to Nature,” by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Gerrit Vyn, photographer. Published by Mountaineers Books, hardcover, 200 pages, $29.95.

By Barb Gorges

Two bird books of note were released last fall because they would make perfect holiday gifts, and now I’ve finally read them.

“Owls of North America and the Caribbean” is by Scott Weidensaul, whose previous book about migration, “Living on the Wind,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

This book concentrates on a group of birds that he has spent nearly 20 years researching. Surprisingly, there are 39 owl species to write about. Half occur south of the U.S., in Mexico and the Caribbean. Twelve of the northern owl species are regularly seen in Wyoming.

The accounts of the Caribbean owls are each only three to four pages long since little is known about them. Our familiar, comparatively well-studied owls have 12-15 pages each.

This is not a field guide, though lavishly illustrated with wonderful photos. Instead, each account sums up what is known about a species: length, wingspan, weight, longevity, range map, systematics, taxonomy, etymology (how it got its name), distribution by age and season, description and identification by age, vocalization, habitat and niche, nesting and breeding, behavior and conservation status.

In a reference like Birds of North America Online, this information is reduced to tedious technical shorthand, but Weidensaul makes it readable, injecting his experience and opinion. Of the snowy owl’s description, he says, “If you can’t identify this owl, you aren’t trying.”

I’ll admit, I haven’t read this book cover to cover yet. I looked up the owls I’m most familiar with, learning new information, and now I’m curious about the others.

One drawback: there is a reference map naming the states of Mexico, but not the states of the U.S. or the provinces of Canada, or the Caribbean countries.

However, all the information presented makes owls more intriguing than ever.

The second book, “The Living Bird,” is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and photographer Gerrit Vyn to mark the 100th anniversary of the lab.

In a 10- by 11-inch format, there is plenty of room for Vyn’s art, the heart of the book. Some birds portrayed life-sized practically step off the page. All of the 250-plus photos are available as individual prints through www.gerritvynphoto.com.

It would be easy to ignore text of this book, except for the name recognition of the contributing authors.

If you missed CLO director John Fitzpatrick’s inspiring presentation at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s 40th anniversary banquet in 2014, you can read it here as the introduction, “How Birds Can Save the World.” The age-old human attraction to colorful creatures that fly makes us notice bird reactions to environmental degradation. And in Fitzpatrick’s additional essay, in stories of rehab success, we find that when we help birds, we help ourselves.

The essay by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver, hit home. She was a child forced to accompany her parents on birding field trips. But despite her best efforts to rebel, birds have come to be important to her, as I hope they have to my children, who attended many bird events in their early lives.

Scott Weidensaul also has an essay, more of a golly-gee-whiz list of cool things you might not know about birds (including some I didn’t), titled “The Secret Lives of Birds.”

The other major essayists are Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a naturalist and author who examines how birds inspire us, and Jared Diamond, an ardent birdwatcher who is famous as the geographer and author who wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.” He projects what coming decades will hold for birds, after decades of population declines.

There are also three essays written by Vyn about his exhilarating photographic expeditions. Three short profiles include a citizen scientist, a researcher, and an audio recordist. CLO is known for its extensive library of recorded bird songs and other sounds of nature, thus the second part of the book’s title, “100 Years of Listening to Nature.”

After perusing the photos, I could still barely concentrate on the text. But afterwards I enjoyed the photos again and the photo captions. Written by Sandi Doughton, they add insight. The photos themselves are laid out in a thoughtful, coherent way.

Altogether, this is a book to enjoy, a book to inspire, and maybe it is even a book to cause you to take action.

Read now, before spring migration, when you abandon books for binoculars.

Much of birdwatching is bird listening

birdJam

birdJam is another app useful for comparing recorded birdsong with birdsong heard in the field.

Published Oct. 3, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Much of birdwatching is bird listening.”

2014 Update: Obviously, this was written before the digital revolution and the multitude of apps for smartphones and other devices. Several items listed have been re-incarnated.

By Barb Gorges

My grandmother had a conch shell by her front door. We kids liked to put it to our ears and listen to the ocean. Later, we learned we were hearing our own sounds—our blood rushing through our heads. When my ears get stuffed up with a cold, the outside world recedes and all I can hear is the sigh of those inner tides.

I had my ears plugged up the other day for our family’s annual expedition to Pole Mountain to sight in our rifles. Little foam ear plugs aren’t as good as the headphone types, but they still block out the natural sounds I enjoy hearing.

Mark said, “See if there’s water in the creek,” and I was only 10 feet away before I finally heard it, full of water from recent rain.

High pitched twittering was missing too. Perhaps the shooting startled the birds, though I saw several, including a flock of Clark’s nutcrackers.

Even if they do protect my ears from the wind, I just can’t wait to pull those ear plugs out. I’m not looking forward to a decline in hearing as I age. Much of bird watching is actually bird listening.

There are dozens of companies providing binoculars and scopes to help birders see better, but only one company in recent birding magazines offers a product to help hearing.

The Orbitor resembles a small version of the equipment scientists use in the field to record bird song. It is an 8-inch parabolic dish with a microphone in the middle, hooked up to headphones, though it can also accommodate a recording device. It also has a scope built in to help you focus on the bird you are listening to.

One satisfied customer quoted in the advertising called it “binoculars for the ears.” You can read more promotional material at http://ramphastos.com.

For those whose houses are too well insulated, there is another device to bring the sound of birds at the feeder inside. The Nokida Naturescout (www.nokida.com) is billed as a “high fidelity stereo nature monitoring system for your home.” My feeder birds are close enough to the window that what I need sometimes is a way to turn down the volume on their incessant chatter.

Every spring as bird song fills the air, I realize I’ve let another winter pass by without studying bird song. If this is the year I finally get around to it, I have plenty of options.

First there’s the three-CD set from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Bird Songs of the Rocky Mountain States and Provinces” (http://birds.cornell.edu). Then there’s Thayer Birding Software’s “Birds of North America” CD (www.thayerbirding.com) with which you can see and hear your chosen bird at the same time.

Thayer and Cornell are advertising their new joint CD-ROM, “Guide to Birds of North America,” which includes 710 species’ songs as well as other identification information.

The Peterson field guide series’ “Birding by Ear” tape has been around for a long time and Dover Books (http://store.doverpublications.com) has Donald J. Borror’s “Songs of Western Birds,” also on tape.

The “Birdsong Identiflyer” (that’s not a typo) advertises in all the birding magazines and on-line, www.identiflyer.com. It is a hand-held machine which uses cards with pictures of 10 birds each. You insert a card and then push the button corresponding to the bird you want to hear.

There are several birding Web sites that include bird songs. To play sound files, most rely on RealPlayer software and explain how to download a free version of it.

www.naturesongs.com/birds — more birds than most sites, but no pictures.

www.naturesound.com – pictures and sounds for a few birds.

www.birdwatchersdigest.com/audio_index.html — sponsored by the magazine.

http://birds.cornell.edu/bow – Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird of the Week archives with songs from their Library of Natural Sounds, plus pictures and information.

http://birding.about.com/cs/onlinebirdsong/index.htm – appalling amount of advertising, but has links to sites featuring North American and foreign bird songs.

One of my favorite sites, which I’ve mentioned before, the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Ontario website, http://wildspace.ec.gc.ca/, has bird songs to go with photos, but it isn’t easy to get from bird song to bird song.

Sometimes there’s the problem of too much noise. Last week Art Anderson and Chuck Seniawski birded with Eleanor Grinnell’s science class from the Community Based Occupational Education high school program to survey birds at Kiwanis Lake at the Airport Golf Course and found 22 species.

The very next day, Jim Hecker and I went out with another CBOE class, but that thumper truck was breaking up concrete right by the parking lot. We didn’t see as many individual birds as there were species seen the day before.

Even the Orbitor can’t help identify birds if all the birds have flown.

Birding by ear with bird song

Veery

The Veery has a beautiful, distinctive song. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published June 26, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Knowing birds by ear is helpful.”

2014 Update: Cornell Lab of Ornithology came out with a new collection of birdsong recordings in 2013. There are several smart phone apps available to help you identify birds and birdsongs.

By Barb Gorges

Our recent Saturday excursion was not meant to be a bird-watching outing. Instead, hiking Laramie Peak with seven teenagers was an endurance test for us four adults.

Who in their right mind would burden themselves with binoculars and field guides for a 10-mile round trip including an ascent (and then descent) of 2,800 feet in elevation?

I wouldn’t have made use of binoculars anyway—I was too busy watching my step on the rock-strewn path. But I could hear distinct bird songs in the trees. However, even with binoculars, I doubt I would have found the singers in the foliage.

Was there any chance I could remember the songs until I could get home and compare them with the “Bird Songs of the Rocky Mountain States and Provinces,” the three-CD set from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology?

Although I can read music for at least one instrument, I’m no good at notating avian glissandos. Only one bird song from the trip stuck with me because it was like the sound made by squeezing the inflatable seahorse beach toy I had as a small child.

Distinguishing bird songs shouldn’t be a big deal. We can distinguish hundreds of human voices. The trick is to hear them often enough—with an associated name and face.

Back at home I was faced with picking from recordings for 259 species. How do super birders do this?

Besides being people with good memories, good birders get lots of field experience and they study. They study books, magazines, tapes, videos and CDs, and they study with people who know things they don’t know yet.

Because I already recognize a few bird songs, I knew what species my mystery bird wasn’t—robin, blue jay, crow, starling, red-winged blackbird, etc.

Because I heard the song in the forest, I perused the play list for forest birds—all those little gray jobs I don’t know, such as flycatchers and vireos.

Putting one of the CDs on the computer meant I could click on any of about 80 tracks, at any time, to make comparisons. The track number corresponded with the bird’s name in an accompanying booklet and a narrator announced the name of the bird at the beginning of each track. My mystery bird turned out to be a veery—a little brown bird.

Since my next excursion will be specifically for bird watching, I decided to study in advance. First, I needed a list of birds. My destination was listed in “Wyoming Birds,” by Jane and Robert Dorn, and the entry for it lists about 25 possible species.

I could also have come up with a list by matching the section of Wyoming, habitat type and time of year of my trip with the information from the “Wyoming Bird Checklist,” put out by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Next, I used a field guide to discover, for instance, that the difference in looks between rock wrens and canyon wrens is minimal.

I read up on their life histories in “Lives of North American Birds,” by Kenn Kaufman, which told me more about their habits and behaviors. They both like rocky places.

I compared their songs on the Cornell CDs. Luckily, the canyon wren was very distinct. The CD booklet described its song as “clear series of descending, down-slurred whistles ending with a bzzz, bzzz, bzzz.” The recording was made in Arizona, and allowing for regional dialects, I think I’ll be able to match that song in the field.

Listening to each song over and over, while visualizing the bird that sings it will help me learn the rest. Another CD, Thayer Birding Software’s “Birds of North America,” has photos and bird songs combined. I created a list of the birds to study so I won’t have to always navigate the entire list of 900-plus species.

Although these research materials are the distillation of the experts’ knowledge, visiting with a local expert gave me a shortcut after our Laramie Peak hike.

Because the ordeal took longer than expected, our dinner picnic at the trailhead at Friend Park was late and we found ourselves driving out of the foothills on dirt roads at 10 p.m.

What looked like rocks in the road would suddenly explode and careen up and over the hood of our vehicle with the beat of wings.

We thought it might be nighthawks, but when I talked to Jane Dorn later, she said they were common poorwills. I’m not sure I would have thought to consider poorwills, but when I looked them up, the description fit perfectly.

Kenn Kaufman wrote, “In dry hills of the west….Drivers may spot the Poorwill itself sitting on a dirt road, its eyes reflecting orange in the headlights, before it flits off into the darkness.”

The only orange I remember was the rising moon. These birds must have had their eyes closed.

At any rate, exploding rockets of feathers work well for keeping hike-weary drivers awake. And they aren’t as scary as finding deer in the headlights.

Book review: “Birdsong by the Seasons” by Donald Kroodsma

Birdsong by the Seasons

Birdsong by the Seasons

Published May 26, 2009, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Figure out those chirps with Birdsong CD, book.”

2014 Update: This book is still widely available.

By Barb Gorges

Birdsong by the Seasons, A Year of Listening to Birds, by Donald Kroodsma, c. 2009, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 366 pages, 2 CDs, hardcover, $28.00.

Four years ago, Donald Kroodsma wrote the book that documented his life’s work and won him wide acclaim, “The Singing Life of Birds.”

It was a big book, describing his passion for recording and studying birdsong plus how to record and read sonograms yourself and what it all means.

So what can Kroodsma do for an encore? Tell birdsong stories by the season. Although there’s still an index, two appendices, notes, a bibliography, and two CDs this time, this writing is more like a series of 24 short stories.

For instance, at the beginning of January, Kroodsma, like a detective, goes under cover with recording devices, in the center of a winter roost of hundreds of robins in western Massachusetts. He listens to every “piik” and “tut,” weaving together meanings, drawing conclusions, trying to stay awake and warm on his stakeout.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a recording is worth at least as many. After you read the robin thriller, immerse yourself in the robin tracks, imagining a dark night, hearing mysterious footsteps, hoot of a predatory great horned owl, rustle of wings of departing robins at dawn and follow along, if you want to, with the recording notes.

Or, listen to the CDs first, checking on the subheadings in Appendix 1 when you can’t figure out what you are hearing. I’ve never heard alligators growl, have you?

Kroodsma doesn’t always wait in one place for the seasons to pass. He often runs out to meet them, parabolic microphone in hand: the Everglades, the Platte River, Corkscrew Swamp, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Virginia, Pawnee National Grasslands (just over the state line southeast of Cheyenne), and various locations back home in Massachusetts.

This book is definitely not your typical linear reading experience. You, your kids–and your pets–will find many ways to enjoy it.

Book reviews: Four good guides for great outdoors

insect field guide

Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America

Published May 9, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Some good guides for days exploring in great outdoors.”

2014 Update: All four books continue to be available.

By Barb Gorges

“Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America” by Eric R. Eaton and Kenn Kaufman, 2007, Houghton Mifflin, 392 pages, flexible cover, $18.95.

The ideas Kenn Kaufman brought to his bird field guide have been applied to this new book to great advantage, especially for someone beginning to study insects.

Four pages at the beginning show photographic examples of every group of insects. Each is color coded to correspond with pages featuring species in that group. Every entry has a full color photo and commentary written by entomologist Eric R. Eaton whose prose is lively, yet succinct.

Kaufman indicates the actual size of insects without numbers. All insects illustrated on one page are in proportion to each other. Whatever insect is featured in the upper right hand corner, next to it is a gray silhouette of that insect life-sized.

On page 35 it took a second to realize the tiny gray smudge was the actual size of a human flea. In another case the silhouette of a lubber grasshopper is much larger, and scarier, than the photo.

One disappointment is that this field guide cannot picture all of the 90,000 known insect species in North America, but it has 2350 photos. You can narrow your search down to a family, perhaps identifying an “Ebony Boghaunter” or “Alabama Shadowdragon.”

The 15-page introduction covers finding insects, their life history and anatomy, identification and classification, conservation, activities with insects and importantly, how to keep healthy and safe while insect watching.

Songs of Insects

Songs of Insects by Lang Elliot

“The Songs of Insects” by Lang Elliot and Wil Hershberger, 2007, Houghton Mifflin, 227 pages plus CD, softcover, $19.95.  

Last year Lang Elliot came out with “The Songs of Wild Birds.” This new book features insects that sing, 77 species of crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and cicadas. While the emphasis is on eastern species, small maps show that 17 range as far as Wyoming.

Each species gets at least two portraits, one on white background and one full page in its habitat. They are all quite wonderful to look at, in a book. In fact, you can order note cards with photos of six of them.

Applied to insects, the meaning of the word “song” is stretched a bit, especially if you consider the “Slightly Musical Conehead” found in southeastern states.

But when you listen to number 11 on the included CD, the “Snowy Tree Cricket,” it brings back memories of late summer evenings.

There is a lot of information about these insects, including how to collect and maintain your own orchestra. You can also find more at www.songsofinsects.com.

Singing Life of Birds book

“The Singing Life of Birds” by Donald Kroodsma.

“The Singing Life of Birds, the Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong” by Donald Kroodsma, 2005, Houghton Mifflin, 482 pages plus CD, softcover, $16.95.

Now out in softcover edition, Kroodsma’s book is a detailed study of birdsong even the casual birder can afford.

Kroodsma gives an account of how he came to be interested in birdsong, how it is recorded, how songs can be compared through transcription into sonograms, and what singing means in the life of a bird.

The CD of birdsong recordings is as enthralling as any story Kroodsma tells in the book. Together, they were awarded the John Burroughs 2006 Medal Award.

 

Why Don't Woodpeckers GetHeadaches?

Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches?

“Why Don’t Woodpeckers Get Headaches? And Other Bird Questions You Know You Want to Ask” by Mike O’Connor, 2007, Beacon Press, 212 pages, softcover, $9.95.

Most of Beacon Press’s catalog is heavy reading. This is the only book with a cartoon on its cover: Little chickadees hold their wings over their ears as a pileated woodpecker drills a hole in a tree.

Author Mike O’Connor dispenses all of his bird advice with a solid dash of humor. He writes answers to readers’ bird questions for the Cape Codder, his local weekly newspaper.

“Dear Bird Folks: I want to get a new birdbath for my wife. Do you have any suggestions? -Mel”

“A question for you Mel, how big is your wife? She might be more comfortable in a hot tub.”

O’Connor then proceeds to cover the topic of birdbaths with good, honest information, such as, “Animals love to knock over birdbaths and because of this, birdbaths tend to break. You may want to just buy a top and simply place the top on the ground. Birds are used to drinking on the ground (from puddles, ponds, etc.) and they probably rather come to a bath that’s low. Placing a bath on a pedestal is more for the esthetic benefit than for the bird’s benefit. There is nothing wrong with using a pedestal, just remember to buy a few dozen extra tops.”

Having answered scores of bird questions myself, I can admire O’Connor’s thoroughness and realistic approach. Most of the advice is suitable for Cheyenne birdwatchers. However, don’t get excited about purple martins. We don’t have them here. Yet.

And finally, O’Connor reminds Mel to keep his new birdbath clean, “If that is too much work, you could always hire a pool boy to do it. I’m sure your wife wouldn’t mind.”

Book Review: “The Singing Life of Birds” by Donald Kroodsma

Singing Life of Birds book

“The Singing Life of Birds” by Donald Kroodsma.

Published May 18, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Studying the science of birdsong.”

2014 Update: Still widely available, includes a CD of birdsong.

By Barb Gorges

“The Singing Life of Birds, The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong” by Donald Kroodsma, c. 2005, Houghton Mifflin, $28

Donald Kroodsma’s”The Singing Life of Birds, The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong,” has been released at this most appropriate season.

More birds sing in the spring than any other time of year, but the drawback is birdwatchers will be out in the midst of migration rather than reading a book.

And it’s a big book–480 pages. The good news is that the author is a storyteller as well as a scientist.

Of the nearly 10,000 bird species world wide, some have their songs encoded in their DNA and some learn their songs.

“Of those that learn, some do so early in life, some throughout life; some from fathers, some from eventual neighbors after leaving home; some only from their own kind, some mimicking other species,” Kroodsma writes.

“Some species sing in dialects, others not. It is mostly he who sings, but she sometimes does, too….Some birds have thousands of different songs, some only one, and some even none. Some sing all day, some all night. Some are pleasing to our ears, and some are not. It is this diversity that I celebrate.”

Kroodsma, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, uses thirty bird species to illustrate the different aspects of “avian bioacoustics” as the field is known.

His research is often opportunistic, taking advantage of travel over the years to compare the repertoire of different populations of the same species or similar species.

In 1968, as a senior at the University of Michigan, Kroodsma was introduced by famed ornithologist Olin Sewall Pettingill to the bird then known as the rufous-sided towhee. It has since been split into two species, the spotted towhee, found here in the west, and the eastern towhee that Kroodsma heard in Michigan singing its distinctive “drink-your-te-te-te-te-te-te-te-te.”

In grad school at Oregon State, Kroodsma found the western bird, the spotted towhee sang the tune differently. This bird leaves off syllables at the beginning and performs twice as many variations.

While you might think determining whether a towhee has eight rather than four different songs would be an exercise in frustration–it isn’t for Kroodsma.

After 30 years of experience, he can practically see the sonogram printout of what he records with his parabolic dish microphone before the computer spits it out. The sonogram is like the musical staff showing the pitch and duration of sounds.

But why do the Oregon towhees have more songs, why do they share songs with their neighbors and even match them as if in reply, while the New England towhees don’t?

Kroodsma attributes this difference to the Oregonians being on their territories year round while the others are migratory and may not have the same neighbors from year to year.

Kroodsma tested his hypothesis in 1987 while visiting Florida where the white-eyed variation of the eastern towhee lives year-round. As he predicted, the bird had a large repertoire shared by neighbors. Someday Kroodsma hopes to get to the Great Plains where both spotted and eastern towhees are migratory and see if they both sing like the birds in the northeast.

Kroodsma also hopes we will all learn to listen to birdsong more closely.

In Appendix II he describes the equipment needed to make his recordings. For every fascinating story he tells, there is at least one sonogram printed with an extensive caption. To help us train our ears, he includes a track of the recorded bird song on the CD included with the book.

This might limit where you sit and read to places within reach of a CD player. You can read the author’s commentary while listening to each track and find the page number of the corresponding sonogram.

Also in the back of the book, I discovered the Notes and Bibliography where Kroodsma has included footnotes, citations for studies he mentioned and more commentary.

While many of the references cited are from professional journals that are probably incomprehensible to anyone but ornithologists, Kroodsma does offer reading recommendations for the rest of us.

But first I plan to digest what he’s written.

By following his instructions, I might be able to recognize individual songs when the spotted towhees visit my yard next week on their annual spring tour.