Popular yet thorough, shimmering with the romance of an arcane field.




A rolling history of avian bioacoustics and a few of the admittedly eccentric characters who work the dawn hours to get the songs.

Few remain unmoved by birdsong, writes Stap (English/Univ. of Central Florida), and perhaps that has always been the case: 16,000 years ago someone painted a bird with an open beak in the caves at Lascaux. On the other hand, few go to the lengths of ornithologist Don Kroodsma, the celebrated birdsong trapper who features most prominently in this exploration of the how’s and why’s of birds singing. How do songbirds go about learning their material? Or is genetics a greater factor? What is the role of regional dialects? Is there a link between dialect and speciation? What, if any, are the advantages of a large repertoire? These and other questions are strewn on the ground like so many sunflower-seed shells, but Kroodsma presents a handful of compelling theories. Many of them, unsurprisingly, have to do with mating and territoriality. While Stap succinctly lays such questions and conjectures before the reader, his principle interest is the development of avian bioacoustics. In particular, he wants to show us what it’s like to go forth and gather the raw material in the field. This fieldwork gives the book its rawest energy, for songbirds sing most spiritedly at dawn (“perhaps to signal they made it through the night”), and Stap must rise long before sunrise to keep up with the bioacousticians. Doing so, he experiences and beautifully describes a rare, antediluvian world devoid of human noise. Then, slowly picking up momentum, come the songs, cheeps, and calls, then the chorus. There is more than one true scientific approach, says Stap, but being in the birds’ natural habitat with all its uncontrollable variables, brings a wonderful authenticity to the gleanings of birdsong understanding.

Popular yet thorough, shimmering with the romance of an arcane field.

Pub Date: March 22, 2005

ISBN: 0-7432-3274-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2004

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...


Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.


Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet