Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist: Your Guide to Listening
Donald Kroodsma. 2020. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Birds of Colombia (Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides)
Steven L. Hilty. 2021. Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions.
QR codes are those square, black and white, densely patterned, matrix barcodes you see on signs, in books, even on television. They were invented in 1994 by the Japanese automotive supply company Denso Wave (hats off to Masahiro Hara). I have read that the design was inspired by the black and white pieces on a Go board, but this may be an apocryphal tech tale. These codes are read by an app, typically downloaded on your phone. When scanned, the QR code will lead you to a website that contains further information, photographs, or maps. By 2011, QR codes were in wide use in the United States, so it was only a matter of time before publishers of bird books realized that QR codes could be invaluable in enhancing the birders’ reading experience.
“Bird song fills our lives with beauty and wonder.” (p. 1, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist)
Ornithologist Donald Kroodsma was among the first to understand the full possibilities of using QR codes in a bird book. His wonderful memoir Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific (2016)— reviewed by me in Bird Observer (2016)—was an account of his bike trip from coast to coast with his son, enjoying the birdsong all along the way. His text was augmented by a liberal use of QR codes throughout the memoir. As I wrote in my review of this book for Bird Observer:
In the margins of Listening to a Continent Sing are 381 labeled QR Codes. You download a free QR Code reader app on your cell phone and when you get to a code (in the book), hold the phone over it and it quickly takes you to what is essentially another whole book accessed through your phone’s screen. This consists of state-of-the-art recordings of not just bird song, but atmospheric recordings, too, like people they met along the way, bees nectaring in fields, even geysers.
The overall effect of the use of the QR codes in Listening to a Continent Sing was to bring the reader along on the trip because you could hear what Kroodsma was writing about. You did not simply read this book, you experienced it.
In Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, Kroodsma uses the many QR codes included to create a university-level course on all aspects of bird song, calls, and noise. Ultimately, he wants to inspire readers to become citizen scientists and to conduct their own field research on bird song.
There are 734 recordings accessed by the QR codes, amounting to an amazing 75 hours of bird song to experience. Kroodsma has never been stingy in his use of recordings. He wants readers and listeners to experience all of the subtleties and complexities of a bird’s vocal display. Instead of a brief snippet of song you would typically find on commercial recordings of a call, in Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist you will be linked to many minutes of a species’ vocalizations. For instance, one QR code links the reader to 21 minutes (!) of a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s sounds. Therefore, this is not a book that you can just skim through. Kroodsma wants readers to stop and critically listen to and enjoy the bird songs. For Kroodsma, bird song is a deeply aesthetic experience, like listening to a symphony or opera—even if you are not sure what bird you are listening to.
It is liberating to be free of naming, and exploring a world without labels can be mind expanding. That idea runs counter, of course, to the primary goal of many birders, which is to pin a label on a bird as quickly as possible and with minimal clues (and then move on). (p. 3 Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist)
Kroodsma covers a lot of ornithological ground in this book. There are chapters and QR codes to help the reader understand the difference between a song and a call, and when that distinction is blurred. Other sections cover birds that have only calls and no songs, species that produce mechanical (nonvocal) sounds, why and how birds sing, the physiology and neurology of bird song, dialects in a species’ repertoire, when birds sing, mimicry, and much more. Using QR codes, Kroodsma teaches the reader to listen carefully to what he is writing about. Ultimately, he wants the reader to put the book down, get out into the field, and critically listen to the birds around you.
Also included in Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist are 48 “Explores” (29 are on the website). These are real field problems that challenge readers to hone their field skills and make their own discoveries about bird song. For example, one Explore focuses on robin vocalizations:
Discover something about robins that no one else seems to have explored. A robin sings “several” low, caroled phrases in a series before pausing and offering a high, screechy note (a hisselly, though some hear it as eek), but exactly how many carols does he sing? Or how many eeks? Do the numbers change through a singing session, or from early morning to midmorning to midday to afternoon to evening? Or from one week or month to the next? And how about the ratio of carols to eeks? What might you learn about the mind of a robin by simply counting his songs like this? No one yet knows. (p. 11)
It may be surprising to learn that there are many aspects of bird song that are not yet well understood. Kroodsma hopes the readers can make some contributions to the science of bird song by making their own systematic observations. I am sure you all are familiar with the whistling sounds that Mourning Doves make with their wings. But did you realize that this behavior is still not completely understood? Kroodsma writes, “The official Birds of North America account declares ‘Function [of wing whistling] unknown but may have some alarm-sounding value at takeoff.’ But, I then ask, what about the function at landing?” (p. 21)
Some of the Explore sections get quite sophisticated. Kroodsma asks readers to record some bird songs and then, with the Raven Lite downloadable software, play the songs at slower speeds and lower frequencies to learn how complex a bird song is compared to what we hear with mere human ears. Ultimately Kroodsma encourages readers to learn the song repertoires of an individual bird, because in many cases, each bird can have a unique repertoire. This reminds me of when we were conducting the Breeding Bird Atlas II. It was early in the morning, and I was deep inside a remote section of Quabbin Reservoir when out of the woods emerged Don Kroodsma. He proceeded to point out all of the individual Veery songs around us at that moment. He knew every bird by the slight variations in their repertoires and location of where they sang their dawn chorus. It was then I realized that Donald Kroodsma was enjoying the soundscape around us at another level entirely. Sure, I could identify a Veery song, but I could not identify a specific Veery.
Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist is an extraordinary book. By the liberal use of QR codes and by giving the readers real field problems to work on, this deceptively slim book changes us from being just birders into serious citizen scientists as well. This is not a book for birders who want to learn a song or call quickly so they can tick a species. Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist is for those who want to understand more about how a bird lives and expresses itself. This book makes us all connoisseurs of the complex and beautiful vocalizations of birds. “Once you are attuned to the different songs that a male can sing, every singing bird becomes interesting.” (p. 97)
It was only a matter of time before authors and publishers realized the potential of using QR codes in field guides. The new Birds of Colombia shows what a modern printed field guide combined with online resources can accomplish.
Almost one-fifth of the earth’s species of birds can be found in Colombia. This should have made the country a must-visit destination for every hardcore birder for decades. Political turmoil and drug cartel violence made Colombia a dangerous place to visit for some time. But in recent years, this dire situation has turned around, and birders are starting to take another look at what Colombia has to offer.
The author, Steven L. Hilty, is singularly qualified to pen a field guide to this country. He has worked for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours since 1983. He has led birding trips all over the world and is currently leading a number of tours of Colombia. He has authored previous guides to the birds of several locations in South America, including Colombia. He even wrote the chapter on tanagers for Volume 16 of the Lynx Edicions Handbook of the Birds of the World. With his colleagues, he has even described two new species for Venezuela and one for Colombia.
This new field guide was the result of the cooperation of several important ornithological organizations:
No published work, however, has played a more significant part in the advancement of the planet’s avifauna than the monumental 17-volume Handbook of the Birds of the World, by Lynx Edicions, and its companion online resource HBW Alive. Almost all the illustrations for the present book are taken from these incredible resources. During the preparation of this book HBW Alive was incorporated into the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s already magnificent online website Birds of the World. These combined resources have provided indispensable references for photographs, sound recordings, multimedia and taxonomy for this guide, as has the immense and ever-growing eBird database, also hosted by the Cornell Lab. Additionally, Xeno Canto, a Netherlands-based online repository of avian sounds, houses a large number of recordings from Colombia and adjacent countries, and these also have been of immense value to this work. (p. 8 Birds of Colombia)
The result of all this scientific cooperation is that almost all of the species pictured in Birds of Colombia have a QR code next to them. When you use your phone to read this code, you are transported to the Birds of the World section for that species, complete with numerous details about breeding, plumage, migration, maps, color photographs, and sound recordings. When I first got a copy of this guide, I spent an hour or so, comfortably in my reading chair, pointing my phone at the QR codes and listening to the songs of the birds of Colombia. My first thought was, “all field guides should have this access to these resources.” My second thought was, “what is cell reception like in Colombia?”
The Birds of Colombia is a large, thick, hefty field guide. It is 608 pages long and contains 3,600 illustrations and 2,000 range maps. The species layout on a page is not crowded and is easy to read. The details in the guide for each species include the basics: size, habitat preference, abundance details, some behavioral notes, written descriptions of vocalizations, basic field identification details, and a note about similar species. The range maps are by necessity on the small side but are well drawn and color-coded for the seasonal appearance. Local species names are given. The illustrations are done by a number of artists who contributed to The Handbook of the Birds of the World and are clear and of a high quality.
Introductory sections give details of the history of studying birds in Colombia, climate, topographic regions, vegetation zones, habitat descriptions, habitats, and an interesting section on bird conservation in Colombia. My only minor complaint is that the print in these sections is small and dense, making it a bit of a chore to read for those of us well on in years.
The inside cover pages on both the back and front are two different large maps of Colombia, one a color topographic map and the other a map of the parks and conservation areas of the country. The page stock is perfect for a field guide, and the cover is sturdy but flexible. This is a field guide that will last several trips to Colombia. It is large, so you will either keep it at your campsite or hotel room or carry it in your backpack.
Even without the use of QR codes, the Birds of Colombia would have been a major contribution to field guide literature. But with the codes and the combined ornithological resources they access, the Birds of Colombia has set a new standard for what a birder can expect from a field guide.
Kroodsma, Donald. 2016. Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Lynch, Mark. 2016. Road Trip! Bird Observer 44 (6): 418–20.
To listen to Mark Lynch talk with Donald Kroodsma about Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, use this link: <https://www.wicn.org/podcast/donald-kroodsma-birdsong-for-the-curious-naturalist/>