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The Singing Life of Birds

The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong

by Donald Kroodsma

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, Hardcover with CD

For centuries, the question of why birds sing and what their songs mean has captured the imagination of scientists, naturalists, and poets alike. In The Singing Life of Birds, scientist Donald Kroodsma takes readers on a listening adventure to understand the hidden dramas in their backyards.

Kroodsma explains how birds acquire their songs, what makes the songs unique, why songs change from place to place, and how they've evolved. He examines issues of sex (why does only the male usually sing?) as well as issues of quality (why are some birds extraordinary singers and others not?). Why are some songs so very complex, especially beautiful, or never-ending? By answering these questions, Kroodsma divulges the mysteries of the avian chorus around us.

The book provides sonograms — picture voiceprints — that plot a sound's frequency over time, revealing the tone, rhythm, change, and diversity present in birdsong. Graphing the melodies of birds offers a way to follow along to the songs with one's eyes, as if looking at a musical score. The sonograms illustrate the songs of thirty birds, from the familiar American robin to the exotic three-wattled bellbird of Costa Rica. A wood thrush, for instance, has two voice boxes, and the sonograms in the book reveal the complex tunes and extraordinary harmony within the thrush's song that one can hear when the songs are slowed to one-tenth of their normal speed on the compact disk.

The Singing Life of Birds includes a compact disk with ninety-eight carefully chosen tracks that correspond to the sonograms. This provides an opportunity for readers to hear the sounds and see them illustrated simultaneously.

"The book is about the miracle of the singing bird and what we can hear if we simply pause and take the time," says Don Kroodsma. "It's about moving beyond 'identifying' birds toward 'identifying with' them." The Singing Life of Birds is Don Kroodsma's passionate tour through the private lives of birds and the music of our singing planet.

Quotes from The Singing Life of Birds


SOMEWHERE, ALWAYS, the sun is rising, and somewhere, always, the birds are singing. As spring and summer oscillate between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, so, too, does this singing planet pour forth song, like a giant player piano, in the north, then the south, and back again, as it has now for the 150 million years since the first birds appeared.

Ten thousand species strong, their voices and styles are as diverse as they are delightful. Some species learn their songs, just as we humans learn to speak, but others seem to leave nothing to chance, encoding the details of songs in nucleotide sequences in the DNA. Of those that learn, some do so only early in life, some throughout life; some from fathers, some from eventual neighbors after leaving home; some only from their own kind, some mimicking other species as well. Some species sing in dialects, others not. It is mostly he who sings, but she sometimes does, too. Some songs are proclaimed from the treetops, others whispered in the bushes; some ramble for minutes on end, others are offered in just a split second. Some birds have thousands of different songs, some only one, and some even none. Some sing all day, some all night. Some are pleasing to our ears, and some not.

It is this diversity that I celebrate. How the sounds of these species differ from each other is the first step to appreciating them, of course, but those questions quickly give way to “why” questions. Why do some learn and others not? Why do dialects occur in some species and not others? Why is it mainly the male who sings? It is these and similar “why” questions that so intrigue us biologists as we try to understand the individual voices that contribute to the avian chorus.

In writing about our singing planet, I can focus on only a few of its voices. The thirty stories told here are personal journeys, ones that I have traveled over the past thirty years in my quest to understand the singing bird.

Many are based on my own research and are years in the making. Others are based on just several days’ experience, or even less, as I seek out birds that illustrate the research of friends and colleagues who share my passions. No matter the source, each story is based on listening and on learning how to hear an individual bird use its sounds, and each story illustrates some of the fundamentals of the science called “avian bioacoustics.” Together, I hope these stories and their sounds reveal how to listen, the meaning in the music, and why we should care.

Copyright © 2005 by Donald Kroodsma.

Table of Contents of The Singing Life of Birds

    Hearing and Seeing Bird Sounds
    The Bewick’s Wren
    The American Robin
    Good Listening, Good Questions, This Book
    Learning Songs:Where,When, and from Whom
    The White-crowned Sparrow
    The Song Sparrow
    Borrowed Songs: Mimicry
    The Northern Mockingbird
    Songs That Aren’t Learned
    Tyrant Flycatchers: Alder and Willow Flycatchers, Eastern Phoebe
    Why Some Species Learn and Others Don’t
    The Three-wattled Bellbird
    The Sedge Wren
  3. DIALECTS: How and Why Songs Vary from Place to Place
    The Great Marsh Wren Divide
    The Black-capped Chickadee
    The Chestnut-sided Warbler
    Travels with Towhees, Eastern and Spotted
    The Tufted Titmouse
    Songbirds without a Song
    The Blue Jay
    Songbirds with Especially Complex Songs
    The Brown Thrasher
    The Sage Thrasher
    The Winter Wren
    Songbirds with Especially Beautiful Songs
    The Bachman’s Sparrow
    The Wood Thrush
    The Hermit Thrush
    Music to Our Ears
    Songs on the Wing
    The American Woodcock
    Tireless Singers
    The Whip-poor-will
    The Red-eyed Vireo
    The Eastern Wood-Pewee
    Chipping and Brewer’s Sparrows
    The Eastern Bluebird
    The Barred Owl
    The Carolina Wren
    The Northern Cardinal

    Appendix I: Bird Sounds on the Compact Disc

    Appendix II: Techniques

    Appendix III: Taxonomic List of Species Names

    Notes and Bibliography


About Donald Kroodsma

Donald Kroodsma, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, has studied birdsong for more than thirty years. He was recognized as the "reigning authority on avian vocal behavior" in the citation for his 2003 Elliott Coues Award from the American Ornithologists' Union.

He has edited three scholarly volumes on the field of acoustic communication among birds, and written more than one hundred articles in both scholarly journals and popular magazines such as Auk, Condor, Birder's World, Living Bird, and Natural History. Kroodsma is a sought-after speaker on bird vocalizations.

Kroodsma majored in chemistry in college and discovered birds in a local Michigan marsh during his last semester. That summer he went to the University of Michigan field station in Pellston, taking beginning and advanced ornithology courses simultaneously. From there he traveled cross-country to Oregon State University for graduate school, where a singing wren in his backyard got him started on a lifelong passion for listening to birds.

The Singing Life of Birds is Kroodsma's first full-length book. Birdsong: A Natural History, by Don Stap, profiles the work of Donald Kroodma.

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