June 26, 2008

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The Backyard Birdsong Guide: A Guide to Listening, by Donald Kroodsma (2008, Chronicle Books, 192 pages)
By Lisa Parsons lparsons@hippopress.com

If you have ever peered, crazed with vengeance and insomnia, out your bedroom window at 3:50 a.m. thinking “SHUT THE **** UP!” toward the bird you can hear (every single morning around this hour) but not see (it’s still dark out), wondering what it looks like and what would be the best object to throw in its general vicinity so as to scare it away, preferably for good, then this is the book for you.

Inversely, if you have ever gazed, filled with wonder and serenity, out your bedroom window on a sunny morning thinking “What a lovely song!” toward the bird you can hear (most mornings around this hour) but not see (the tree is dense and the bird is up high), wondering what he looks like and what treats you should set out in the feeder, then this is the book for you.

I think I might have a rose-breasted grosbeak. Or possibly a vireo. Eh, it’s probably just a robin.

All I know is it wakes up early and has absolutely no consideration.

How do I know, despite not having seen it, that it’s probably a robin (or grosbeak or vireo)? I played The Backyard Birdsong Guide. I pushed the little button and listened to the recording, and then I read what ornithologist Donald Kroodsma, of the Cornell ornithology lab, had to say. (Cornell’s bird lab, by the way, is apparently *the* place to go for bird study. They have a large video and audio library online at www.birds.cornell.edu.)

Seventy-five birds are listed in this compact hardcover book, and for each one there’s a drawing, a one-page description and at least one sound recording. You note the number next to the bird’s name, use the forward or back button on the player to get to that number and hit “play.” There’s volume control too.

You can use the “play all” function and just sit back and listen to bird call after bird call — possibly until you shout, “That’s IT!” like Charlie Brown did when Lucy said “fear of everything” in the Peanuts Christmas special, sending her bowling backward.

Or if you don’t have a bird problem, or a bird friend, then just enjoy the variety of birdsong.

Some of them don’t even sound like birds. The loons and the mourning doves — they sound like wolves or something. And the barred owls — sounds kind of like the monkey section at the jungle.

Also, ducks are funny. Wack wack.

Listening to the northern flicker, I felt like, dude, careful. You’re going to give yourself a seizure.

Listening to the “aggressive” call of the blue-winged warbler, I thought … that’s all you got? Warbler needs to go to the gym.

This “audio field guide” could be fun for the layest of laypeople, and is certainly a help in identifying birds in your neighborhood. Brilliant idea, accessibly executed (even more so than putting birdsong on the Internet, I would argue), it comes in two volumes, one for eastern and central North America, and one for western North America. For samples, go to www.chroniclebooks.com/backyardbirdsongs. ALisa Parsons