A Year of Listening to Birds
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Remember when I told you about the madness of bird people. It was a review of The Singing Life of Birds, a screed that went on and on about the danger of making recordings of birdsongs:
you can record them, the mockingbirds, and all the others, if you must, but you are better off not to start. Kroodsma says it will take you over, you will find yourself in some strange neighbor's strange backyard at dawn trying to capture the sound of the black-capped chickadee, the eastern winter wren, the red-eyed vireo, the towhee, the tufted titmouse ... a godwit god knows.
In other words, they may be calling in the police to deal with you a birdcase nutcase with your 5 a.m. birdsong recording gadgets in the morning mist.
The writer we were referring to was Donald Kroodsma and here he is again, his enthusiasms about bird warbles intact, in fact, if possible, a little more enthusiastic if such is possible, complete in 350 pages, with twenty-four of them ... including the belted kingfisher, the blackburnian warbler, the limpkin of Corkscrew swamp, the downy --- not to say hairy or pileated --- woodpecker, the blue-gray gnatcatcher, the fructifying frigging fruitcrow.
Kroodsma has arrogated to himself two birds for each month. He wanted to do four, a total of fifty-two --- but he wasn't sure he could do them all justice, so he stuck with just twenty-four there where he lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with side-trips to the Everglades, the Platte River, Grundy, Virginia, and --- will he ever stop? --- a special pilgrimage to Nicaragua and Costa Rica to get up at some awful hour, usually four or so when all sane folk are abed, to take his pile of equipment out onto the beach at Charco Verde, not to greet the sun and lord knows not like most sane visiting gringos to sip tripe soup for the "crudo" (hangover), but rather to stalk the great kiskadee flycatcher.
Does his enthusiasm spill over to those of us who are confirmed slugabeds, making us hotfoot it over to a nearby marsh to record the song of the chickadee --- the "gargle call," "the whistled hey-sweetie" --- slipping out from under the covers at some ungodly hour to slosh about in the icy wetlands amidst a chorus of "chugging frogs" and "a symphony of insects, including katydids" ... seeking the thrustling sound of the tufted titmouse? Such enthusiasm!
§ § §
Those of us who know next to nothing about birds do know that the Machiavelli of the bird world is the lowly cowbird. But Kroodsma? "We never got around to talking about cowbirds, but I know you must love them."
You loved this world and all the forces that make it what it is, and what better story than the making of a cowbird, how it relies on all the savvy accumulated over eons of time to foist its child-rearing duties on other birds?
"A villain to some," he says, "but you know otherwise."
The author, as you may have gathered, is a bit bossy, tells you where, specifically, to go to listen to certain calls on the CD. Me? I just stick it in my computer, let the birdsongs run on and on, a background to his wonderful commentary, this man who loves bird and bird calls above all else in the world, who tells us that he just had to have two CDs at the back of this book. Imagine him, haling the editors of Houghton Mifflin up and down because they tell him he should be content with one, it costs enough, as it is, they explain to him, with one of these great kiskadee sonograms, and he froths over, explaining, "You don't understand,"
One disc was simply not enough. This book is about using sounds not so much to identify birds as to identify with them; so much of the joy of listening is to linger and listen to one bird for an extended period.
"Listen to one of the most intelligent species, for example, as two American crows eloquently discuss life matters during a nine-minute session."
This Kroodsma: a cowbird lover, a fan of the tufted titmouse (god wot), and his two crows babbling on about "life matters" for crumb's sakes!
--- Gerry Trimble