Date: June 4, 2008
Article originally published in
The Herald-Palladium 04/24/2008.
Written by Debra Haight, HP Correspondent.
Reprinted with permission.
Bird watching is like greeting a friend
BERRIEN SPRINGS — It’s hard to compartmentalize Don¬ald Kroodsma’s life and career. He’s part philosopher and poet and part scientist. He’s also one of the world’s leading authori¬ties on bird songs.
Kroodsma, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, is the author of “The Singing Life of Birds” and has won several awards. He spoke Saturday night at An¬drews University and led a workshop at Love Creek Na¬ture Center.
“It’s always a pleasure to be among people celebrating spring,” he told audience mem-bers. “I heard two cardinals singing today. I live for hearing bird songs ... For me, a bird walk often becomes a bird stand as I stop to listen to the different birds.
“For me, birds are my fellow creatures on the planet who are speaking their minds as they sing. They’re telling so much about themselves, about their age, whether they’re male or female.
“For me, it’s not so much about identifying birds by song or sound. I tell people to slow down, you have to slow down and listen.”
“I liken it to how you’d treat a human friend. Do you iden¬tify them through binoculars or by a voice in the crowd? No, you want to get to know the person well. With birds, you want to get to know them so you don’t mistake one bird for another.
“It’s not just about pinning a label on a bird and moving on. I believe you can truly appreci¬ate a bird and his song without even knowing what kind of bird it is ... We need to listen with our eyes together with our ears.”
Kroodsma demonstrated his philosophy of listening with both eyes and ears by showing a series of sonograms of songs from many familiar birds such as robins, sparrows, thrushes, warblers, cardinals and wood¬peckers.
He called song sparrows “priceless singers,” with the males each knowing eight to 10 different songs.
Robins with their caroled songs “are just wonderful to listen to. “They’re among the most common birds and we don’t know much about them,” he said.
“With every bird that sings, my goal is to crawl inside the bird’s mind and figure out what it’s doing,” he said. “A mock¬ingbird can have 150 songs and a thrasher 2,000 songs ... Listen to the most common birds around you and listen in a whole new way.”
He first showed sonograms of their different songs and then played audio of their ac¬tual songs. “You learn the little things,” he said. “The yellow¬bellied sapsucker has a loud sound followed by a light one,” he said. “There’s beauty in the harmonies and whistles.”
In addition to playing the bird songs at normal speeds, he also slowed them down to half, quarter and one-eighth speeds. “To us, the sounds are a blur,” he said. “When we slow the songs down, we start to hear what the birds themselves hear.”
He said scientists have been asking the wrong question over the years as they try to analyze bird songs. “They’re on the wrongtrack,”hesaid.“They’ve been asking what’s he thinking and the key is what is she think¬ing. The female is the silent composer of what the male sings. She chooses which male song she likes best when she chooses a mate.”
Songbirds have two voice boxes they can use to sing high and low notes at the same time, Kroodsma said.
Most black-capped chicka¬dees sing the same songs no matter where they’re found.