Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

A Conversation with Donald Kroodsma: Part 1: A Sense of Wonder

Don Kroodsma at the 2001 Sound Recording Workshop

Last week, I sat down with Don Kroodsma, to talk about his new book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist. I of course asked what made him write the book. (You can listen to this conversation here.)

Laura, I’d been into birdsong for about 50 years and I realized that I knew a lot about how to listen to birds and I had written several books—several experiential books. What’s it like to bicycle across the country listening to birds from Virginia to Oregon, for example? Or I’d taken a few species in some of my other books and said, you know, this is what it’s like to listen to these species, and trying as much as you can to think what it’s like to be that species. But I thought, I just ought to take everything that I know about birdsong and all the things that make it so extraordinarily fascinating and put it into one book with a couple hundred examples of different species and what—75 hours of listening. No longer the 10-second clips so that you can just identify the bird, but, you know, like with our favorite Brown Thrasher, 3 ¼ hours of fine listening to one individual to get to know that individual better. So in a nutshell, that’s why I wrote the book. 

Don’s sense of wonder and excitement about birdsong is contagious. In his book, he invites us on a magical mystery tour through his lifetime of birdsong exploration.  

It’s basically, “Come with me! It’s out there! Leave everything behind and let’s pull up a chair and listen.” And we can race all over the continent and listen to whatever species we choose, whatever gives us the best example, and in those 75+ hours of listening, why, there’s so much good stuff.  
Of all the scientists I’ve known, Don Kroodsma is one of the rare breed imbued with a sense of wonder, and a quest to keep asking questions and keep discovering new things just for the sake of figuring it all out. I asked him how he got that sense of wonder. 

I go back to my senior year in college when I took a genetics course. And genetics isn’t my thing. But what was so exciting—of course, this was the Sixties when we knew relatively little about genetics—we were on the brink of learning everything, and what was so exciting about this course was, I swear, we spent about half the time discussing what we knew, and the other half what we did not know. And to this day, I think that was the most exciting course I’ve ever taken, because wow—you mean, we’re on the brink of discover? We could learn this if we follow this line of thinking or looking or listening? For me, too, with birdsong, it’s just unlimited what we don’t know. I’m reminded of a conversation back in 1968 with a fellow ornithology student who said, “You know, we know everything there is to know about birds, so I’m gonna go study lizards.” Well? So be it. 
I’m exceedingly glad that Don didn’t go off and study lizards, or stay in his original field of chemistry. He’s made the world a brighter place right where he is. Next time, he’ll tell us about a bird whose song is making international news right now, the White-throated Sparrow.