Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review: Music of the Birds, Volume I by Lang Elliott and Marie Read

As a writer and a reader, I love the smell and feel of real books, but I’ve adjusted to reading Kindle and Nook books on my iPad. When I’m traveling, it’s wonderful to bring along a single compact piece of electronic equipment in place of bulky books and magazine articles. As an added bonus, when Russ falls asleep while I’m still reading, it’s nice to be able to turn off my light and continue reading on the iPad. Project Gutenberg has put a whole lot of no-longer-copyrighted books into digital format, so I’ve been able to read a plethora of old bird books and the complete memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, too.

Virtually every electronic book I’ve read has been a straightforward digital text version of a printed book. Some of the bird apps I’ve bought, such as the digital Sibley field guide, have a good variety of sounds as well as illustrations, but overall, the digital format hasn’t changed the media nearly as much as I’d hoped. One of the most charming elements of Harry Potter was how the magical books and newspapers seem to come alive, people looking directly at the reader and moving. It seemed like the greatest innovation for eBooks could be to bring subjects to life, with both movement and sound.

Now, finally, there is a birding eBook that is every bit as magical as anything in Harry Potter. Lang Elliott and Marie Read, two of my favorite people, have put together an amazing eBook available via iTunes: Music of the Birds, Volume 1. The book features extraordinary photos, close-up, high definition video, and wonderful sound recordings of 20 North American birds, including species such as Rose-breasted Grosbeak, American Robin, Blue Jay, and Chipping Sparrow. According to iTunes, “This eBook has been made specifically to take full advantage of the extraordinary multimedia capabilities of the exciting new electronic medium.” I think that understates the case—this book is as magical as anything in Harry Potter.

I’ve spent countless mornings creeping up slowly on drumming Ruffed Grouse. Music of the Birds has amazing Ruffed Grouse videos so high definition it allows me to relive those experiences better than I’ve ever been able to do with any other media before. The soft greenery of the forest floor is so lush I can almost smell it. The Ruffed Grouse video is richer for my having sneaked up on so many drumming grouse in real life, and even the most beautiful and high definition video on an iPad is a poor substitute for reality, but being able to conjure reality when I can’t be creeping up on a grouse is pretty darned wonderful. To me that single video alone is worth the price of the eBook—just $7.99—and the other videos are equally good.

Music of the Birds is currently available only on iTunes for iPad, and currently, the format doesn’t allow playing on a computer. Marie and Lang are planning to expand the formats so these wonderful productions will soon be enjoyed on other devices. Most of the sounds are perfect on the iPad’s built-in speakers, but as with all small speakers, low frequency sounds don’t transmit well. I’ve always used Ruffed Grouse drumming sounds to evaluate speakers, and sure enough, on the iPad they sound like pitiful clicks rather than resonant, deep thuds. Fortunately, headphones, including cheap ear buds, provide the full range of frequencies to bring it all to life. If you have an iPad and want an eBook that fully lives up to the magical promise of electronic media, Music of the Birds Volume 1 is the perfect choice. If you’re wondering whether it’s worth the price, you can download forfree an excellent sampler from iTunes.


Disclaimers: I've never met Lang Elliott, but for years he has generously allowed me to use his sound recordings for production of For the Birds. Virtually all the recordings you've heard on this program have been made by him. I have met Marie Read while I was in Ithaca, and if I'm very lucky, she and I may work on a project or two together in the future.

I paid out of my own pocket for my copy of Music of the Birds Volume I, and don't think my relationship to either of the authors has influenced my opinion of their work. Really, I went to some lengths to meet Marie in Ithaca because I did so admire her work, and I've been a huge fan of Lang Elliott's for a very, very long time.