Bird Fact Friday – To migrate long distances, birds follow the stars

From page 46 of Bird Brain:

There are a number of tools that birds use when migrating long distances. For example, one way that nocturnal birds find their way is by using the stars to navigate. Experiments with migratory birds in planetariums have found that birds learn celestial maps based on the position of certain major constellations, and their position relative to the poles. When exposed to a simulation of the northern hemisphere sky in the spring, birds will orient north, and vice versa.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – Brain size isn’t everything…

From page 32 of Bird Brain:

To sustain flight, all parts of a bird are small and light—including their brains. They compensate for this reduction in mass in a number of ways; for example, they are able to generate new neurons when they need them.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

We had something to crow about at the British Birdwatching Fair!

by Julia Hall, Senior Publicist in the UK

BirdsThe British Birdwatching Fair is one of the world’s leading wildlife conventions—described by the Guardian as ‘the Glastonbury of birdwatching.’ Not even the rain and high winds could deter many thousands from attending this year’s Fair which took place from August 19-21 at Rutland Water. While birds are the headline attraction, this is an event for all nature-lovers with hundreds of exhibitors including many specialist natural history organizations covering the full range of flora and fauna.

This year, we were excited to launch Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland. The book has already created intense buzz among UK birders – including an interview with Rob Hume on the BBC Today Programme.

Princeton University Press was there showing off a wide range of our natural history titles, including Britain’s Birds. Our stand stood out with its flying banner overhead (fortunately Andrew Brewer, Managing Director of our European sales team, didn’t have to find a long ladder and teeter above us to hang it as we feared) and people flocked to browse through Britain’s Birds, ask questions about Britain’s Birds, buy Britain’s Birds, and get their copies signed if any of the authors were at hand!

Britain's Birds

Everyone connected with the book: authors, designers, photographers, as well as sales, publicity, and editorial team members were to be seen swanning about the Fair wearing special Britain’s Birds polo shirts.

Britain's Birds

The Fair includes a special Authors Forum which is sponsored by PUP.  Rob Hume, the main writer of the Britain’s Birds text, gave a well-attended talk in the Forum on each day of the Fair. This was followed by a long signing session at the Fair’s main bookshop WildSounds.  For over an hour each day people queued to get their copies signed by the authors.

We also celebrated the launch of this magnificent book with a drinks reception at the stand on the Friday, beautiful giveaway posters and tote bags, and a prize draw each day.

Britain's Birds

PUP was pleased to arrange a discussion on the future of field guides hosted by Stephen Moss and including our own Robert Kirk and Andy Swash on the panel. Also there was 18-year-old Josie Hewitt from Next Generation Birders and Ruth Miller from The Biggest Twitch. Despite being up against a discussion about grouse shooting in another marquee, our panel discussion was very well attended and could have run much longer since there was a great deal of interest in the topic, particularly in the interplay of apps and physical books.

Birds

The Author’s Forum also hosted talks by other PUP authors: David Newland on butterflies, James Lowen on using field guides and featuring a whole range of WildGuides books, and Brian Sullivan on Better Birding.

Britain's Birds

It was a wonderful 3-days and worth all the time that many members of the PUP and UPG team spent planning for, preparing for, and attending the event. All congratulations must, however, go to the five authors of Britain’s BirdsRob Hume, Rob Still, Andy Swash, David Tipling, and Hugh Harrop for a truly spectacular book.

Bird Fact Friday – How are modern birds and mammals related?

From page 28 of Bird Brain:

Modern birds and mammals are separated by 300 million years of evolution. Their last common relative was a stem amniote, a creature with fully terrestrially adapted eggs, similar to a modern day amphibian. All modern families of mammals, reptiles, and birds evolved brains from the basic neural plan in this stem amniote.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

A look at avian intelligence with Nathan Emery

EmeryWhat really goes on inside the mind of a bird? Are these creatures as simplistic as the expression “bird brain” would have us believe? In Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, Nathan Emery shines new light on the minds of birds, offering insight into their sophisticated neurological functions and the diverse behaviors these functions give rise to. An extraordinary work of cognitive biology, Bird Brain uncovers an array of unexpected abilities including mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight. Recently, Emery took the time to talk with us about avian intelligence, why it has long been misunderstood, and how he first became hooked on birds.

Can you tell us something about how you go into studying avian intelligence?

NE: I completed undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of Central Lancashire in the northwest of England. Then I moved north of the border to do my PhD studying face responsive neurons and social signals in primates at the University of St Andrews. After that, I moved to UC Davis in California for 3 years to work on an animal model of autism, that didn’t exactly work out as expected, but it did result in me meeting my future wife, Nicky Clayton. We moved to Cambridge in 2000, me continuing my neuroscience research at the Sub-department of Animal Behaviour, where both Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey did their PhDs; Nicky as a lecturer in the Department of Psychology. It was at Cambridge that I started getting focusing on birds instead of monkeys.

How did you become interested in birds?

NE: My wife Nicky got me hooked on birds. I was never a birdwatcher, I didn’t keep a pet parrot, and it would be fair to say that I’d never really considered them, except as a tasty meal at Christmas. Nicky has worked with birds for her entire career, first studying bird song for her PhD, then concentrating on spatial memory and caching behaviour. I was writing a review paper on how different animals use eye gaze as a social signal. I didn’t know what to say about birds, as my knowledge up to that point had been entirely about primates. She made me see the light! She told me dozens of fascinating facts about birds. I was hooked and haven’t turned back. My review completed from a new perspective, Nicky and I collaborated on a project looking at whether scrub-jays appreciated that others were watching where they cached, and whether they protected their caches from these potential thieves. This lead to our first joint paper, which we were lucky enough to get into the highly prestigious journal Nature a few months after we got married. It was published on our joint birthday, probably the first, and possibly the last occasion this happened to a paper in Nature! In the 15 years since, I’ve not looked back on either front, and now my research is entirely on birds.

How did you get involved in writing Bird Brain?

NE: I’ve wanted to write a popular book on avian intelligence for about 10 years, but things always seemed to get in the way. Then I was approached by Ivy Press to write a chapter on avian brains for an edited book they were putting together. My wife was asked to edit it, but she didn’t want to do so, so suggested me. I was keen, but then thought ‘why don’t I just write the whole thing myself?’ Ivy agreed, so that’s what I did. I had already arranged a year long sabbatical from work, so switched focus from the experiments I’d planned, to writing the book.

The book is beautifully designed and illustrated. Did you have any input into how it looks?

NE: One of the reasons I was excited to be working with Ivy Press (the UK publisher of Bird Brain) was their reputation for producing beautiful books with a specific focus on design.

They were producing some very attractive nature and science books for a popular audience, and I really liked what they had planned for this project as it tallied with my own ideas. I’ve always been interested in illustration. At that crucial point in my life when I had to choose what I was going to study, I had to decide between science and science illustration. I chose science, but have always tried to incorporate illustration into my science work – whether the design of my lectures or talk slides, the illustrations in papers or even the design of problem-solving tasks. This project was a dream come true. I designed and drew all the illustrations in the book (except for three) using Photoshop, but they were then changed into a style more consistent with other Ivy books by three great illustrators. I do get credited for Illustration Concept, but would love to illustrate my own books in the future.

It’s quite unusual to see detailed brain wiring diagrams and experiments illustrated in a popular science book. Was this something you had in mind from the start?

NE: Yes. Jacqui Sayers, the book’s original editor was very keen on doing something visually different with the book, to try and make some of the arcane aspects of science more accessible to the public. I tried to illustrate the various steps in an experiment in a way that could be easily understood. We also tried not to dumb down how the information is presented, which is why there are quite a few complex diagrams detailing the avian brain’s wiring patterns. Also, it is called Bird Brain! However, the brain is said to be the most complicated object in the known universe, so it would be a travesty to present it too simply. We think we’ve achieved the right balance.

Why do you think birds have been maligned for so long?

NE: The term ‘birdbrain’ is part of our language. Our ancestors knew more about the capabilities of our feathered cousins than we did, until very recently. They feature as the clever protagonists of many fables and legends, including origin stories concerning the beginning of the world. Although somewhat fanciful, there is a lot of truth – at least in terms of their behaviour and intelligence – about these birds. A bigger issue is that most people have little experience of birds, outside of pigeons, chickens, ducks and sparrows, and they wouldn’t know what constitutes intelligence. You see an animal using a tool, such using a stick to move food into reach, and it is easy to use your own experience to understand that this requires some intelligence. This is possibly why a video of a New Caledonian crow solving a problem requiring 8 different steps has received over 10 million hits on YouTube. It just looks clever. Compare that to a study of long-term memory, such as remembering where something was hidden 6 months ago. This doesn’t translate very well to a single video. All the relevant information about what maybe going on in the bird’s mind when it’s recovering a memory of a past caching event, such as ‘where or when did I hide that worm?’ is hidden in the details of the experiment rather than a video clip. Our perception of all animals is guided by what we see in front of us, and its relationship to our past experiences. Unfortunately, our day-to-day view of the natural world is not enhanced by a Sir David Attenborough voice over. This clouds our view of an animal’s intelligence more than any particular aspect of their behaviour.

What would you say were your most important findings about clever birds?

NE: There are three pieces of research of which I’m the proudest. The first is the study that I mentioned earlier, that scrub-jays are protective of their caches by implementing different strategies to reduce the chance of them being pilfered. The most intriguing fact about this, is that not all scrub-jays do this. It’s not an innate response to being watched. Only birds that have previous experience of being thieves protect their caches – it takes a thief to know a thief! Birds without such experience, do not protect their caches. They are too naïve to know that the world is a bad place until they experience otherwise. This finding has been proposed as evidence that jays have a theory of mind – thinking about another’s thoughts. However, I’m not sure that this is akin to human theory of mind or a process that is special to creatures who cannot speak.

The second finding is a series of studies on tool-related cognition in rooks; namely whether they are capable of creating novel tools to solve unique problems, such as bending a wire to reach and pull up a bucket containing a treat, or placing stones into a water-filled tube to raise the water level to reach a treat floating on the surface. There is no evidence that rooks use tools in the wild, so it is striking that in captivity they can do things that great apes have yet to demonstrate. One of my greatest loves is designing experiments, especially new cognitive tasks. I have notebooks filled with my experimental designs, and we’re currently testing the problem-solving abilities of the famous ravens at the Tower of London using some of these new designs. It’s extremely rewarding when others adopt your tasks, especially when they add their own improvements and test them on their own species. One case is the Water Displacement Task, my ex-PhD student Chris Bird and I adapted from Aesop’s Fable ‘The Crow and the Pitcher’, that has now been used to test rooks, New Caledonian crows, Eurasian jays, western scrub-jays, grackles and young children. It’s one of the challenges of comparative psychology to develop tasks that assess cognitive differences across species that aren’t based on simpler factors, such as visual acuity or manual dexterity. Certainly for birds, the Aesop’s Fable Task appears to be achieving this aim.

The final contribution for which I’m proudest is not the result of an experiment, but an idea. Nicky and I wrote a review paper in the journal Science in 2004 in which we proposed that crow and ape intelligence is an example of convergent evolution – namely that complex cognition evolved in these distantly related animals due to facing similar selection pressures, such as living in complex social groups or having to find and process a range of foods, some that are difficult to acquire or with external defences. This idea lead to me coining the term ‘feathered apes’ for corvids. It is gratifying to see this has become part of the scientific furniture where the general public just accepts that crows are smart, and just as smart as apes, dolphins and elephants.

Nathan Emery is Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Biology at Queen Mary University of London, UK has studied the intelligence of corvids, and parrots, as well as apes and monkeys for the last 20 years. Emery is the co-editor Social Intelligence: From Brain to Culture and The Cognitive Neuroscience of Social Behaviour, and is on the editorial board of the journals. He is the author of Bird Brain: An Exploration of Avian Intelligence, a visually stunning guide to the brain, behaviour and cognition of our feathered friends. Emery’s work has been extensively covered by international newspapers and magazines, in books, and on TV. He is currently working with the ravens at the Tower of London.

Bird Fact Friday – Do birds have a prefrontal cortex?

From page 26 of Bird Brain:

In the mammalian brain, the prefrontal cortex is a center of intelligence—it has a role in personality, self-awareness, problem-solving, and in executive functions such as planning, flexibility, and working memory. In birds, scientists have determined through studies of behavior, neural connectivity, and neurochemistry that the caudolateral part of the nidopallium (NCL) is the avian equivalent of the prefrontal cortex. Even pigeons are known to achieve executive functions traditionally attributed to the prefrontal cortex, including working memory, planning, flexible thinking, and attending to objects of interest.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Announcing Britain’s Birds

BirdsWe’re thrilled to announce the release of Britain’s Birds, an essential addition to any birder’s collection.  This user-friendly guide for beginner and experienced birders includes comprehensive coverage of every bird recorded in Britain and Ireland, distribution maps and migration routes, as well as a wealth of tips for identifying birds in the wild. To learn more about the book, listen to a podcast the authors recorded with Talking Naturally, and watch the trailer for a glimpse of the beautiful full color interior. Put together by a group of life-long birders, the book is comprehensive, practical, and full of color images of every plumage you are likely to see in the UK.

 

 

 

The team behind Britain’s Birds:

Rob Hume, a freelance writer and editor for 35 years and editor of RSPB publications from 1983 to 2009, was Chairman of the British Birds Rarities Committee, and has led wildlife holidays in the UK, Europe and Africa. Robert Still, co-founder and publishing director of WILDGuides, is an ecologist and widely travelled naturalist. Andy Swash has been involved professionally in nature conservation since 1977 and is managing director of WILDGuides. A renowned photographer, he leads photographic tours worldwide, and has devised, co-authored and edited many books. Hugh Harrop founded the ecotourism business Shetland Wildlife and is one of Shetland’s top birders and naturalists. His award-winning photographs have been published throughout Europe and North America. David Tipling, one of the world’s most widely published wildlife photographers, is author or commissioned photographer for many books and writes regularly for leading wildlife and photographic magazines.

Bird Fact Friday – What do we know about the bird brain?

From page 22 of Bird Brain:

Despite more than 100 years of study, we know very little about the structure and function of the avian brain. There are approximately 10,000 species of birds, all with different brain architectures. What we do know about the avian brain is restricted to a few species: the pigeon, the domestic chick, and a few songbirds. None of these species figure in the list of world’s smartest birds. With more research, we will gain a deeper understanding of avian intelligence.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – Why do birds have a reputation for lack of intelligence?

We have officially concluded our Firefly Fact Friday feature. Thanks to everyone who commented on and shared the series! This week, we’re bringing back Bird Fact Friday with a fun tidbit from one of our newest titles in Birds & Natural History. Check this space every week for a new fact from Bird Brain by Nathan Emery.

From page 17 of Bird Brain:

Nathan Emery argues that birds are not as dimwitted as has been previously thought—in fact, many of them exhibit remarkable intelligence. This ill-founded assumption can be traced back to a comparative anatomist of the 19th century by the name of Ludwig Edinger. In an encyclopedia of animal brains, Edinger posited that bird brains are composed largely of the striatum, the part of the brain responsible for instinctual or species-typical behavior, with little or no areas responsible for thinking, such as the cortex. He believed that if the bird brain evolved from the striatum, then birds should not be capable of thought. Edinger’s ideas held sway well into the twentieth century despite studies on bird intelligence that contradicted his hypothesis.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Happy Father’s Day with Donald Kroodsma

In Listening to a Continent Sing, Donald Kroodsma tells the story of the ten-week, ten-state cross-country bike tour he took with his son, David, to listen to the different birds that live all over the United States. In celebration of Father’s Day, here is a sampling of one of the many entries. Be sure to visit the author’s companion website to hear the birds for yourself.

Pacific

On July 7, Day 65 of the journey, Kroodsma and his son prepared to leave Dixie Summit for Dayville, Oregon.

Back at the campsite I find David eating breakfast. I join him, and we gradually pack up and ready our departure. “July 7, 7:52 a.m.,” I announce into my recorder. “We’re about the drop down off Dixie Pass, biking downhill for 53 easy miles beside the John Day River, dropping almost 2000 feet to where we’ll spend the night as guests at the Presbyterian church in Dayville.” To David’s playful, muted strains of “happy birthday to you,” we mount our bikes, aim them west, and begin coasting…. All around us are those exhumed bits and pieces of oceanic islands that were scraped off the Pacific plate…. Dayville arrives quickly, and with permission kindly granted we’re soon camped inside the church. After a quick visit to the nearby general store, David prepares a feast fit for any birthday, topped off with two brownies laden with 57 candles, enough to create a conflagration (wisely, I note, he has a bucket of water nearby, just in case). “Happy birthday, Pops,” smiles David as he unveils my birthday present: a second Super Soaker water cannon to match my Father’s Day present, which David still carries, but this new one is entrusted to me. p. 252-253

31-94_SilhouettesAtPacific

To learn more about the book, check out a Q&A with the author at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology blog, All About Birds.

A journey through birdsong

In Listening to a Continent Sing, Donald Kroodsma details a cross-country cycling trip he took with his son, David, in order to, literally, listen to the continent sing. Throughout, he describes in lyrical prose all of the birds he heard as they pedaled west along the TransAmerica Route—established in 1976 for the “Bikecentennial” of our country—and all of the adventures that he and his son experienced along the way. They began their journey in Yorktown, Virginia on May 4. Read on for a behind-the scenes glimpse of the symphony that is the Virginian countryside in mid-spring. Be sure to use the QR codes, found in the book, to hear the birds for yourself!

On May 4, day 1 of the journey, Kroodsma describes listening to the world wake up around him from inside the tent, his son sleeping beside him (“Best not to get up before the sun,” he says.).

A robin begins to sing, 5:34 a.m. according to my watch, about half an hour before sunrise. His low, sweet carols drop from above one by one, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerio, cheerily, and I am soon silently singing with him, three to five carols over a few seconds, then a brief pause. I feel his tempo, counting the number of carols in the next package and pausing, counting and pausing, his initial measured pace calming. I try to stretch each quarter-second carol into a second or more, slowing his performance, relishing the varying patterns in pitch and rhythm, listening and watching as miniature musical scores float through my mind.

American Robin
Day 2 brings a trip to Malvern Hill, sight of a bloody Civil War battle nearly 150 years before. In memory of that battle, the intrepid duo is subdued as they listen to the sweet call of a field sparrow.

Emerging from the insanity of this scene is the requiem now offered by a field sparrow nearby. His gentle whistles accelerate, sliding down the scale, each whistle a little shorter and lower than the one before, a two-second lament for all who suffered here. Every few seconds he repeats his mournful song, over and over, never-ending. In the distance I hear two others, each with a unique cadence, each offering his own comment on the scene that his ancestors some hundred generations ago would have witnessed here.

Field Sparrows
On the road between Afton and Lexington, Virginia, day 6, an early morning ride is accompanied by the Eastern towhee.

Still, silence … until a single, tentative chewink of an eastern towhee pierces the quiet. With my right hand, I fumble beneath the sleeve over my left wrist to punch the light button on my watch, leaning over the left handlebar to catch a glimpse 5:25 a.m., 45 minutes before sunrise. The call is contagious, as chewinks now erupt from seemingly every roadside bush. In less than a minute I hear a feeble song, then a louder one, and soon the bushes sing, drink-your-teeeeeee, two strongly enunciated introductory notes followed by a rapid series of repeated notes. The birds ease into it, at first repeating one song several times, much as they do later in the morning, but then the warm-up is over and no holds are barred.

Eastern towhee
For the next two months, father and son cycled across the United States listening to hundreds of birds, meeting new people, and enjoying the great outdoors together. Read Listening to a Continent Sing and let Kroodsma take you along for the ride. And if you’re interested in the story behind the cover design, check out the PUP Design tumblr!

Kroodsma

Bird Fact Friday – Is the Mute Swan silent?

From page 284 of Waterfowl of North America, Europe & Asia:

The Mute Swan is not mute at all. Its most frequent call is a wee-rrrr or wiingrr-iew with a high-pitched second syllable. It will also make an in-rrr sound accompanied with strong hissing in aggression. In flight, the wings produce a whistling sound, typical of the species.

Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide 
Sébastien Reeber

ReeberThis is the ultimate guide for anyone who wants to identify the ducks, geese, and swans of North America, Europe, and Asia. With 72 stunning color plates (that include more than 920 drawings), over 650 superb photos, and in-depth descriptions, this book brings together the most current information on 84 species of Eurasian and North American waterfowl, and on more than 100 hybrids. The guide delves into taxonomy, identification features, determination of age and sex, geographic variations, measurements, voice, molt, and hybridization. In addition, the status of each species is treated with up-to-date details on distribution, population size, habitats, and life cycle. Color plates and photos are accompanied by informative captions and 85 distribution maps are also provided. Taken together, this is an unrivaled, must-have reference for any birder with an interest in the world’s waterfowl.