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At the Top of the (Bird Song) Charts

Terrain.org reviews Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song, by Les Beletsky

Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song, by Les Beletsky.Les Beletsky, in his brief introduction to the lovely Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song, writes, “The sounds of birds—often beautiful and melodic, sometimes harsh and noisy—have fascinated and attracted people for thousands of years. But it is only in the past few decades that nature enthusiasts, bird lovers, and scientists have been able to record and play back these sounds.”

Even before Beletsky’s Introduction, Bird Songs begins with Jon L. Dunn’s concise Foreword, in which he writes, “Birds vocalize with the syrinx, a sound-producing organ located at the junction of the two bronchi at the base of the trachea. These two bronchial sides can actually be stimulated independently so they can each produce different sounds at the same time, as happens in the clear, flutelike song of the Wood Thrush.”

With the small exception of the Foreword, however, Bird Songs is not about the history and science of bird song—for that, read David Rothenberg’s excellent Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song. What Bird Songs is, though, is just as delightful, and in fact makes an interesting (if not geographically limited) resource for Rothenberg’s book, or any book about North American birds and their calls.

Beletsky’s Bird Songs brings together—in four chapters based on the habitat types of (1) Seabirds, Shorebirds, and Waterbirds (2) Forest Birds, (3) Woodland Birds, and (4) Open-Country Birds—a visually and aurally stunning collection. It is unique not in its assemblage of birds, but in the actual bird songs, playable from an easy-to-use electronic device attached to the back of the coffee table-sized book.

Want to learn more about the American wigeon, for example? Turn to page 45, where a beautiful illustration and a couple paragraphs of text tell us that the bird commonly referred to as the “baldplate” breeds widely across much of the northern half of North America. Want to hear the American wigeon? Forward the player to track 026, and you’ll hear the “male’s whistled, three-note call, whew-whew-whew.”

It’s an ingenious approach to a book that is an excellent resource for the field birder or armchair birder alike because the calls, which were provided in clear recordings by the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, provide a context that a visual guide simply cannot.

Of course, with such a presentation comes a lack of mobility. But Bird Songs was never intended to be a field guide; rather, it is a pre-field guide, an educational tool for familiarizing birders with calls before trekking out or for identifying calls—from their own recording devices or from memory, perhaps—upon their return.

The audience of this wonderful collection is much broader than devoted birders, however. The biggest fan in our household is my ten-year-old daughter, who already has a keen interest in a range of birds—the black-capped chickadee (audio file # 147), bald eagle (#039), and red-tailed hawk (#177) foremost among them. She delights, as do I and her younger sister, in listening to these calls again and again, and then discovering new songs to add to her playlist.

Because the book is divided by habitat, the Index at the back is a must for quickly locating a particular bird. The slight challenge here is that birds are listed in alphabetical order by full name, from Cactus Wren to California Gnatcatcher to California Quail, for example. But if the reader only knows a general type of bird—wren, say—but not the particular species—cactus or canyon or Carolina, perhaps—a full and laborious scan of the Index may be required.

Still, much of the delight is moving through the book by habitat or at random, listening to the calls, comparing the songs of similar species or birds of the same habitat. From a practical perspective, my daughters and I have used it not so much to identify the species at our bird feeders—we are already familiar with the songs of the lesser goldfinches, hummingbirds, curve-billed thrashers, white-winged doves, and other visiting friends—but to more familiarize ourselves with the calls of birds we hope to see, or at least hear—red-tailed hawk, phainopepla, Western tanager.

Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song is a beautiful and fun collection that our entire family heartily recommends for anyone even remotely interested in birds. There is no requisite to be a skilled birder, no requisite to have a keen ear for the birds outside. All that’s required, really, is simple curiosity—that and a willingness to explore the pages of the book. But watch out, because it won’t be long before exploring the pages of Bird Songs will get you excited about exploring the broader pages of the environment outside your door, one bird—and one bird song—at a time.

(And look for Beletsky to “go global” with the September 2007 release of Bird Songs from Around the World, with the same admirable approach, design, and audio player.)


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Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song

By Les Beletsky, foreword by Jon L. Dunn

   Chronicle Books
   ISBN 1932855416


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