- Series: The MIT Press
- Hardcover: 160 pages
- Publisher: The MIT Press (August 20, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0262014297
- ISBN-13: 978-0262014298
- Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 0.7 x 7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,388,363 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds: North America, Britain, and Northern Europe (The MIT Press) Hardcover – August 20, 2010
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A lexicography of surprise, subtlety, and sheer delight, Aaaaw to Zzzzzd shapes bird sound into comprehensive fabrics of sumptuous articulation.―John R. Stilgoe, Harvard University (Endorsement)
Every bird lover should possess a copy of this book, but so should every bird. Both will learn the names we have for one another, and enjoy the gossip of our garden. Now, when you hear a call, you'll know who is on the line, and when you hear a song, why whee-oo wheet, and the same to you, my sweet.―William Gass (Endorsement)
This is a most unusual compilation, surely a labor of love, in which the author, John Bevis, has heroically tried to catalogue in one alphabetical sequence all the weird and wonderful ways we have tried to represent bird songs and calls in words, ranging from the unpronounceable kdddrrddi of the summer tanager to the unforgettable witchity, witchity, witchity, witch of the common yellowthroat. But for me the most interesting parts are the sections before and after the catalogue where he discusses more generally the human response to bird song: the ingenious ways we have recorded and imitated it, the ways we have celebrated it in literature and music, and the ways we might properly compare it with our own language and song.―Jeremy Mynott, author of Birdscapes (Endorsement)
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Bevis explains that poets and naturalists have tried for centuries to replicate birdsong in human language. Bevis has gone through the many attempts at transcription, and has forced a consensus for his entries here. The syrinx of birds, of course, is different from the larynx of humans, and they don't have our ability to use glottal stops or lip movements to modify their sounds. The antic surrealism of putting these nonsense words in what ought to be "useful" alphabetical order is appealing, and in his text, Bevis refers once to the Dadaist sound poetry of Hugo Ball. Bevis says that, for all the absurdity, he has tried to make this little book to be a useful field guide. "In a way, I'm calling the bluff of ornithologists - if they're happy to make up words that seem to them to represent the sounds of birds, then a glossary of those words ought to be legitimate." There is a small chapter about the mnemonics which people have hung onto bird speech, like the _drink your teeee_ of the rufous-sided towhee. Another chapter lists the different ways humans have tried to collect or order birdsongs, of which turning them into written vowels and consonants is only one. A bird's song was first recorded in 1889, and since then microphones and recording devices have dramatically improved. In 1965, the sounds of about 25% of bird species had been recorded, and now it is more than 90%. There is a "Saunders notation" which Bevis says is the closest method "of collecting birdsong using pencil and paper alone," but it seems not to be widely used. Researchers use sonograms of bird calls, a graphic display of what is heard forming curves and spikes of black ink. Few birders, however, can look at these diagrams and form a useful idea of what the bird sounds like.
Bevis gives useful general information about birdsong in his introductory notes. There is a differentiation between singing and calling. Calls are more utilitarian; they announce the bird's presence, warn of predators, state a need for food, and so on. Calls might be more than vocal; the drummings of the woodpecker or the clackings of stork bills do the same thing. Songs are primarily a means for a male to advertise himself, as a breeder or as a defender of territory. For different species, songs range from being completely known by the bird just from having singing DNA to being completely dependent on learning songs from the environment. Different birds have evolved with songs that inhabit different sonic niches, and this process continues: great tits who live in the city, for instance, are singing shorter, faster bursts of song at higher pitches than their country cousins in order to overcome urban noise. The main parts of the book, however, are the lexicons (one is given for North America and another for Britain and Northern Europe). I can easily hear the American robin saying _cheerily cheer-up cheerio_; I'm no birder, but that one is quite familiar. If you hear a bird say _chink_, you are going to have to have a lot more information, because when one looks up _chink_, it is listed as belonging to the blue grosbeak, brown towhee, green-tailed towhee, Nashville warbler, Virginia's warbler, and the white-throated sparrow. I bet that the laughing gull really says _haa-haa-haa-haa_ and the Canada goose _honk-a-lonk_. It seems bizarre to me, however, that the California quail should go _chi-ca-go_. This is a funny, strange, lovely book, and if you know any bird enthusiasts, they don't have anything like it on their shelves already.