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The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong Paperback – April 4, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Kroodsma, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, shares what he's learned from more than three decades of recording and analyzing the songs of birds in this intriguing, instructional book. Using "sonagrams" (also known as sound spectrograms, they plot a sound's frequency over time), he illustrates the songs of 30 birds, from the familiar American robin to the exotic three-wattled bellbird of Costa Rica. He considers how birds acquire their songs (some species learn them; others have their tunes "encoded somehow in nucleotide sequences of the DNA"), what makes the songs unique, what functions they serve, and how they've evolved. No two species sound alike, of course, but groups of birds within each species have their own dialects, and individual birds have their own repertoires as well. A CD of the bird songs discussed is included, as are descriptions of the recording equipment Kroodsma used and explanations on how to make similar recordings and "sonagrams." Kroodsma is a warm, encouraging guide to the world of birdsong, and his enthusiasm is contagious. Illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Scientific American

Just as the colors and patterns of the feathers that birds wear show tremendous variation, so, too, do the songs that they broadcast--but much more so. Songs may be absent, or they may range from a few simple genetically encoded notes endlessly repeated, to virtuosos of variety resulting from copying and learning, and even to seemingly endless improvisation. In The Singing Life of Birds, Donald E. Kroodsma, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, celebrates the diversity through carefully chosen examples, one for each of the 30 years that he has studied birdsong. The book is best described by its subtitle, The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong. Kroodsma shares his secrets--solid, practical advice on how to record bird sounds and how to "see" the sounds in sonagrams, visual representations of the recordings of songs. A compact disc that accompanies the text aids readers in this task. He concludes: "There's no longer any mystique to what I have done all these years. Anyone can do this kind of stuff. And anyone should." His infatuation started with a single male Bewick's wren in his backyard in Oregon. Kroodsma discovered that this one wren sang 16 different songs, and in any singing bout it poured forth 40 to 50 renditions of one of them before switching to another, and then to another, and on and on. Meanwhile neighboring wrens hearing the song replied with the same one, while distant males sang other songs. Why? The proximal answers to why birds sing and what they sing run from the trivial to the fascinating: they enjoy it, they are primed by hormones that activate neuronal pathways, they respond to neighbors. But the ultimate, evolutionary question of why they sing and what they sing can be answered only by the comparative study of many species. Sometimes the anomalies provide a clue. For example, most individual wrens of different species learn many songs, and neighboring birds have similar songs--that is, they have dialects. The sedge wren of North America is an exception, however. Unlike other wrens and the sedge wrens of Central and South America, it has lost the ability to learn songs; it can only improvise on songs that are inscribed on its DNA. It is therefore unable to "match" the songs of its neighbors, and no dialects are found. So what is different about the North American sedge wrens in respect to other wrens? They are nomads that live in unpredictable habitat--meadows that can quickly dry up. As a consequence, these birds can never predict who their neighbors will be from one season to the next; hence, learning songs as youngsters for later use in song matching is pointless. Contrast this to the bellbird, a long-lived tropical bird in which individuals come to know one another well. These birds listen to one another all year long and learn the changes in others' songs throughout life. The young birds learn the latest of these variations, and the dialect of the population changes from year to year. Kroodsma takes us repeatedly into the field, into the birds' world. He shares an all-night vigil with a whip-poor-will, tallying 20,898 identical repetitions of its one song for the entire night. He describes a brown thrasher that in one two-hour session sang 4,654 songs, 1,800 of them different (many borrowed from neighbors of other species). We enter the mind of the researcher as he tries to penetrate the mind of the bird. As much as we humans may enjoy the spectacle of birds flaunting their gaudy garb to the accompaniment of vocalizations and dancelike antics, the show is meant primarily to attract females. It is about sex--about who will be the father of the female's chicks. The males presumably enjoy putting on their show, but whatever else it may do for them (such as serving as a territorial marker), it is the females who have shaped the performance by their tastes and preferences, and these are as various as the 10,000 or so species of birds. Kroodsma emphasizes that we know little about why one or another bird has a specific repertoire. Yet despite the dazzling variety, it appears to me that all birdsongs have general requirements and constraints, and I believe that these shared characteristics may in themselves shed some light on the enigma. The primary requirement of a species' display song is that it must stand out from environmental noise--that is, it must carry--and it must be distinct from competing voices on the stage. Once females reward a specific song type with mating, then success breeds success, and whatever it is that attracts, the male that has more of it enjoys a huge advantage. But singing is not cheap: the performers are conspicuous to predators, and the displays are so costly in time and energy that the performers may appear to handicap themselves. I doubt, however, that it is the flaunting of handicap as such that attracts the females ("I am so strong and healthy that I have energy to waste on singing"). The singer must cater to the females' taste. As in our own fashions of clothing and music, there is not necessarily rhyme or reason in the specifically chosen attribute, except the most important one--it works. Konrad Lorenz reputedly said that birdsong is "more beautiful than necessary." It seems to me that it is just as likely that the flamboyant displays of song and dance, of feathers and, in the bowerbirds, of decorated love shacks are indeed necessary, because females compare, and they are picky. Arbitrary though their criteria of choice may be, it is significant that we humans also find many of the same displays beautiful.

Bernd Heinrich is professor emeritus at the University of Vermont and author of many popular books on science. Among the most recent are The Geese of Beaver Bog, Winter World and Mind of the Raven.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Har/Com edition (April 4, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618405682
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618405688
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 7.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #776,879 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

A retired biology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Donald Kroodsma's work on bird song is legendary. His book "The Singing Life of Birds" won the 2006 John Burroughs Medal Award and the American Birding Association's Robert Ridgway Distinguished Service Award for excellence in publications pertaining to field ornithology. In 2003 the American Ornithologits' Union called him the "reigning authority on the biology of avian vocal behavior." Kroodsma received his Ph.D. at Oregon State University and has traveled all over North and South America researching bird song. He is a Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union and the Animal Behavior Society and has published hundreds of academic and popular articles.

Customer Reviews

Thanks Joan,I love it.
J. Guild
If you are reading this review you are likely interested in birds in which case you should certainly buy this book.
Seth R Finck
A very beautiful book in all senses.
santiago imberti

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

127 of 134 people found the following review helpful By Laura Allender on March 29, 2005
Format: Paperback
Just listened to an interview with the author on NPR which included a number of selections from the accompanying CD, all I can think of is 'how awesome!' The author has spent many years studying and documenting birdsong and makes me realize that what I thought I knew from growing up in the country surrounded by birdsong is a tiny fragment of what I actually was hearing. The CD includes birdsongs at normal speeds and slowed to 1/2 and 1/4 speed, which allows the listener to hear the discreet sounds. The accompanying text includes graphic description of the sounds for a clearer understanding. If you love birds, you will love this!
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51 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Laura L. Erickson on May 5, 2005
Format: Paperback
I was predisposed to like this book, since I love birdsong and have long been drawn to research about it. But this book far exceeded my high expectations. Don Kroodsma takes us through the entire process of listening to a song, thinking up questions about how the species acquired it, and step by step through the process of learning the answer, setting up the sections like little mysteries. He's recognized by the American Ornithologists' Union as an authority on acquisition of birdsong, and although the book is authoritative and scientific, he somehow manages to infuse every paragraph with his own sense of wonder and joy in his subject. This book may look like a textbook, but it reads like a cross between a mystery novel and lovely poetry. I can't recommend it highly enough.
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48 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Williams on November 2, 2005
Format: Paperback
I just got a book out of the library. The author is a nut about recording songs and analyzing the sonograms (frequency intensity over time), and in his mind, when he hears a song, he identifies it by how it "looks" in his mental sonogram.

This whole idea is amazing, and I think I'll never listen to birds the same way again - just after reading the first few pages!

The writing style pulls you into the author's world as he tracks birds and ponders the meaning of their song. If you love birding, you will wish you had been there on every walk, and you'll want to wake up two hours before dawn the next day to discover the amazingly different pre-dawn songs of common birds.

The book comes with as CD with 98 tracks of songs, and some of the tracks are slowed down, which really changes your perception and shows you the depth and richness of some of those "blurt" sounds birds make. The Woodthrush at 1/10 speed reminds me of a howling wolf. I know I'll never listed to this song the same way again!
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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful By John Matlock on April 22, 2005
Format: Paperback
A masterpiece of avian bioacoustics (Sorry, I just had to use those words).

I have a bird outside my window just now singing a song of some kind. I've long thought it was pretty, but thought no more acout it. Now this book has come along and my casual listening has become much more interesting. I found the bird outside my window in the book and sure enough here is a sonogram, a voice print if you will of what the bird sounds like. Further, there is a track on the CD that comes with the book that has this bird's song recorded. It's not exactly like the bird outside the window, but birds (I've learned) are individuals too.

Birding is one of the more popular pastimes in this country, and growing quire rapidly. This book would be a supurb gift to any birder, even if you have to give it to yourself.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Peter Baum on June 7, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I found myself in complete agreement with the preceding 5-star reviews by Laura Allender, John Matlock and Laura L. Erickson. I only wish there was a way to rank the book higher than 5-stars.

Reading the book took me on a journey into an amazing, beautiful, and complex world that I previously had no idea existed. I kept finding myself saying "wow!" at the wonderful and startling discovers I came across. I especially liked the fact that the author is completely honest about what he doesn't know, explaining the many mysteries about bird singing that still remain to be solved. Rarely does one see the humanities so beautifully merged with science. The book is one of the best I have ever read, barring none.

My only regret is that there is as yet no edition of this book that uses color images of the birds and sonograms (the stunning cover jacket is in color). I would be willing to pay a little extra for such a version of this fantastic book.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By I. Shandruk on August 2, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
You need not know much of anything about birds or how to listen to them to enjoy this book. It is well written, informative, and an easy read. The accompanying CD of birds songs is very helpful in understanding the sonograms of various bird songs given in the book. The sonograms themselves, I found, to be wonderful visual guides for 'seeing' what one is hearing, particularly for those rapid-singing bird species.

I highly recommend this book to any one intersted in birds and their songs.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Debbie the Book Devourer on September 5, 2005
Format: Paperback
What a transforming book and CD! I'm a casual birdwatcher, but not very good at listening to their songs. I learned how to really listen to birds and read sonograms, but I learned so much more. The passion Kroodsma conveys for his field of studying birdsong is contagious. He describes each set of experiments almost in memoir form, describing the scene and his feelings and posing the questions that pop into his mind even as his first questions are answered. For a scientist to still have such a sense of wonder and poetry about his field after 30+ years of study is truly a gift. We get a glimpse into how the scientific method works as well as what the method has shown us about birdsong over the years.

I had only two problems with the book, but it was otherwise so overwhelmingly wonderful that I didn't dock it any stars. I found the CD a little cumbersome to listen to as I read, so I read the book first and then listened, which was not ideal. Also, he flubbed some easily-checked facts about the northern cardinal. He left out my home state of Indiana and also Missouri (at least) when he listed the states that have the cardinal as their state bird. And I'm quite sure that the Cardinals football team had already moved to Arizona by the time he wrote the statement that St. Louis' sports teams were named for the bird. But then again, when you spend every morning (and sometimes all night) listening to birds, maybe you don't have time to check such trivia.

I wish I had more time to listen to the CD over and over and review the stories and experiments that go with each recording, but my book queue is long, and they all have due dates at the library. This may just be one of those books I break down and buy.
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