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BIRDSONG by Don Stap

BIRDSONG

A Natural History

By Don Stap

Pub Date: March 22nd, 2005
ISBN: 0-7432-3274-7
Publisher: Scribner

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.