American Birding Podcast



Reading Birdsounds, Listening to Print

A review by Don Torino

Bird Song: Defined, Decoded, Described, by Ernie Jardine

Bird Song Press, 2011 

448 pages, $21.95—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 13629

Our lives are bombarded by new technologies every day, from phones to drones. The changes they have wrought on our world are astonishing. It’s no different in the world of high-tech birding, and sometimes it seems that printed birding books are about to be overtaken for good by “apps” and instant messaging, finally leaving the printed book a relic of a truly bygone era.

So it was a very strange experience indeed to hold a new book—a paper, printed new book—in my hand about bird song. What could a new book have to offer, especially a book about so diverse, so complicated, so audible, and so resolutely multimedia a subject as bird song? But my moment of worried skepticism quickly turned into a smile of satisfaction.

Where has this book been all my birding life?

Jardine, Bird songI have to confess that, being a typical male, I was so excited that I skipped by the introduction and “How to use this book” section to instead search out a few of my favorite birds. I just wanted to see if the author’s description of a song would be one that I was familiar with or would at least recognize. After all, what could there be to say about my favorite birds’ calls that I hadn’t already figured out? To my pleasant surprise, there was a lot to learn here, for both the beginner and the more advanced birder.

Like any good guide, Bird Song groups its birds into categories. Rather than observing taxonomic divisions, though—orders and families—Jardine structures his book along similarity in songs. The “very short” category is broken down into single-note, two-note, three-note, and four-note songs, grouping in some cases the vocal efforts of such distantly related birds as the American Crow, Common Loon, and Black-capped Chickadee; this allows even the casual, taxonomically non-savvy birder to quickly narrow down the possibilities when faced with a puzzling sound.

The breakdown of song categories proceeds to “repeated notes,” further subdivided into even more, very specific sections such as “long songs” or “chatter.” Although this system may at first sound a bit complicated, a quick perusal of the various categories and the “How to use this book” pages will rapidly let you take full advantage of this amazingly informative guide.

BINbuttonEach of the highly detailed song descriptions here is accompanied by a compact but comprehensive natural history of the bird itself, information that cannot be found on the typical bird song CD. Perhaps the most innovative and immediately useful part of this guide is the section that groups songs by habitat, a quick reference for birders who find themselves facing an unfamiliar song in a deciduous forest, grassy meadow, open woodland, etc. For example, the reader hearing a vocalization listed under “Freshwater Marshes, Swamps, and Bogs,” and characterized as “One Note Repeated,” is prompted to consider the Killdeer and the Swamp Sparrow, among other possibilities. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to look up songs this way, making the book not only informative but a fun read.

As useful and practical as Bird Song is as a working field guide, the evocative descriptions of a wide range of vocalizations also make it a book to just sit back and enjoy in its own right. A great relief: There is nothing worse to get through than a dry, just-the-facts birding book, no matter how informative. Bird Song is just the opposite. I couldn’t wait to read the next species account and soak in all that the text has to offer.

Even though Bird Song will not displace or delay the new birding technology, this book—a paper, printed book—is an important learning tool that can be used successfully in conjunction with any audio resource for learning bird sounds. It will help you understand what you are hearing where you are hearing it, a far more promising approach than just listening to a bird song and hoping that you might remember it .

My bookshelf finally holds a book about bird sounds that is just as important as the guides to sparrows, warblers, and raptors. There is an empty space on yours, too, just waiting to be filled by Bird Song: Defined, Decoded, Described.


– Don Torino grew up in the New Jersey Meadowlands. Currently President of Bergen County Audubon Society, he leads a full schedule of birding and nature walks throughout the year. His weekly blog is entitled Don’s New Jersey Birding.

Recommended citation:

Torino, D. 2015. Listening to Print [a review of Bird Song: Defined, Decoded, Described, by Ernie Jardine]. Birding 47 (3): 66.