Suffering from a concussion and hearing loss in the aftermath of a serious fall from her horse, Smithsonian and National Geographic contributor Menino (Mr. Darwin's Fox and My Coyote, 2008, etc.) was drawn to explore the fragility of perception.
Reminded of a jazz workshop during which an improvisational singer was forced to compete with the loud sounds of a mockingbird, the author decided to track down the latest research on the vocal communication of a range of animals, from the croak of the lowly frog to bird songs and elephant calls. She hoped to find answers to “two big questions about the bird and human singer…Why sing? and What does the song mean?” She traveled to Panama, where behavioral ecologists were studying frog signals in an effort to determine how female frogs pick mates. Menino explains that a female's apparently simple response is deceptive; it “is actually an elaborately wrought transaction involving the endocrine system, larynx and tympanic membranes, nerves, and brain.” In Puerto Rico, the author connected with researchers studying duets sung by birds. Bird songs appear to have many different functions, from attracting a mate to territorial defense. While males do most of the singing, as in human music, bird songs contain alternating, repetitive phrases and patterns. The male takes the lead and the female responds. However, writes Menino, the parallel with jazz improvisation stops here. If the female's response is not right, the male will attack her. The duets appear to function as recognition signals and a kind of “social glue.” This is borne out in the complex social and vocal interactions of dolphins, elephants and primates, as well as in the role of music and language in human society. A charming meditation on the world of sound.