Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Book Review: Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist

Imagine getting to spend over 75 hours in the field with Donald Kroodsma, one of the most well-known, authoritative ornithologists in the world, listening to birds as he explains exactly what each one is doing with its voice, and why. Is it using its syrinx, the avian song box, to produce two entirely different sounds simultaneously? You put on headphones and can hear the separate sounds, one on the left and one on the right channel, as Don explains how this is happening. 

Are two birds song matching, one singing and the other matching his phrases a moment later? Listen! First Don extracts four songs and their matching songs on the separate channels, so you know exactly what to listen for, and then you can listen to 8 ½ minutes of pure wild-alive back and forth singing. You can sit back and enjoy it for the sheer pleasure, or you can focus to see how many song-matching pairs you can pick out yourself—Don can hear 49 in that sample, averaging about 6 song-matches each minute.  

I got to spend a little time with Don when I visited the
Hampshire Bird Club in Amherst last October. 

The likelihood of your spending that much time in person with Don Kroodsma is pretty remote. He lives in Massachusetts and spends much of his time traveling around the continent and the world studying and recording birdsong. But he’s done the next best thing—he’s written another superb book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, taking his readers under his wing as he explores his lifetime of experiences with and discoveries about bird song. The reader will gain a richer understanding of why and how birds sing, how various birds acquire their songs and how those songs may change over a bird’s lifetime, how some species develop regional dialects, and how and why some birds acquire huge repertoires while others stick to a handful, or even just one, song.  

The book would be wonderful enough on its own, but it’s even more wonderful thanks to the recordings Don provides, for free, on the website That extraordinary resource has over 75 hours of Don’s own recordings, pure and delightful listening on their own account, and especially wonderful when listened to as you read the book. The hardcover version includes QR codes to the bird sounds, so if you’re reading with headphones hooked to your cell phone, tablet, or computer, you can call up the sounds as you read about them. Or you can set your browser at to play the songs chapter by chapter as you read.  

On digital versions, (I have the book on Kindle), you can just touch the QR codes with your finger as you read, and voila! The appropriate recordings pop up ready to be heard. Don also made all the recordings downloadable if you prefer to read while not hooked to the internet. So the book is seamlessly and easily interactive no matter how you read it.  

This is not a bird song identification book. Don explains in the Introduction:  

Don’t settle for a few brief sound bites that provide the minimum clues needed to successfully identify a bird species. No, strive for a deeper understanding of each singing bird, trying to fathom who it is, what’s in its head, why in this moment it is singing the way it is. A singing robin is never ‘just a robin,’ for example, but an individual expressing his mind, maybe even a ‘thought.’
If you devour the entire book, you’ll certainly learn the songs and/or calls of a lot of the 197 American species represented. But much more importantly, you’ll have a deeper, richer understanding of those sounds, and the lives of the birds producing them. As icing on the cake, Don throws in 13 Australian birds and, just for fun, 6 minutes of a unique mammal, the Tasmanian Devil! 

Last week I sat down with Don Kroodsma, at least virtually, via Zoom, and we chatted about his book, the amazing website so rich with recordings, and some of the birds he covers. All this week, which I’m designating Don Kroodsma Week, I’ll be excerpting from our conversation.