What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World
© 2012 Jon Young
I don’t envy people for their boats, wardrobes, or wine collections, but if I meet someone who can ‘read’ the natural landscape I instantly covet their knowledge. It doesn’t matter if they’re a geologist who can interpret the deep history of a field, or the hunter who knows that deer have been in the area recently. A richer connection with the natural world is an appetite I can never satisfy. So it was that I found the promise of What the Robin Knows to be fascinating. Is it really possible to ‘read’ an area by listening to birdsongs?
It is possible, says Jon Young, if you’re committed. A given species of bird may have different calls depending on what part of the country they’re in. The key, besides committing to sit every day in the same spot listening and observing, is to know what ‘baseline’ constitutes, so that departures from it — alarm calls — can be detected. Young devotes the first half of this book to exploring baseline, sharing the different types of bird calls, from singing to ‘companion calls’. The latter are interesting because they’re vocal ‘nudges’ that a mating pair of birds might exchange while separated. Those who purchase the Kindle version and can read it on a Kindle Fire or an Ipad have the additional treat of embedded audio, so that when Young refers to a call, touching the horn symbol will have it play. This won’t work for the Android or PC Kindle approaches, however. The concept of baseline is especially important, says Young, because animals pay attention to it, too; one species of bird will pay attention if another issues an alarm, or begins acting oddly, and creatures like deer are also involved in this exchange of information.
What the Robin Knows is a curious book, one that can’t convey all its explicit knowledge so much as it prepares the reader to obtain it for themselves. The cries Young shares as an example may not reflect the region a given reader is in. But this introduction to the different categories of bird calls, and its study of their alarm behavior, is of great interest readers with any interest at all in birding.