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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're about to meet a man who spent 30 years studying the songs of birds. Don Kroodsma is considered the leading authority on the biology of bird vocal behavior. He's written a book about the art and science of bird song called "The Singing Life of Birds," and this morning we will find out how he does his work. For this National Geographic Radio Expedition, Kroodsma went into the field on his bicycle and took along a tape recorder. Elizabeth Arnold reports on his journey.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

ELIZABETH ARNOLD reporting:

Every summer for the last few years Don Kroodsma, a lanky man with an intense gaze, has pedaled his bike across America.

Mr. DON KROODSMA (Ornithologist): We're on Route 1091 climbing out of Bevinsville, climbing up to Dema, listening to birds.

(Soundbite of heavy breathing)

Mr. KROODSMA: A scarlet tanager sings up on the right. And the oven-bird, a hooded warbler, on the left.

ARNOLD: This world-famous bird expert climbing a hill in Kentucky, armed with a big microphone, binoculars and lots of water, has no idea how many miles he's clocked. But he's listened and recorded the single notes and the dawn chorus from Virginia to California to complete his library of bird songs.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Mr. KROODSMA: There is no better way to hear a continent sing than by bicycle.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

ARNOLD: And there's no better listener than Don Kroodsma who's an exacting scientist, a visiting fellow at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, but also just a wistful observer.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Mr. KROODSMA: It is just so wonderful to ride through the lives of these birds and eavesdrop on them and hear them go about their daily lives. But to know what they're up to, you can read the minds of these birds. If you simply listen, you know which song is coming next or which does not come next. Riding a bike, just a great way to hear the birds.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

ARNOLD: Through his travels and recordings, Kroodsma has explored the mysteries of how birds learn to sing, why some sing and some don't, and the intriguing fact that their songs vary from bird to bird and even from place to place.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Mr. KROODSMA: Oh, it's true. You listen to any individual human voice and you hear an individual. You listen to any bird and, if you hear the way the bird does, you hear individuals, too. But then there's this next layer that we call `song dialects.' And these birds have song dialects just like we humans have dialects. And there are any number of species where you can go and listen to all the males--and it's usually just the males who are singing here in North America. You can go to any area and listen to the males singing and they will all have the same song. But travel just a little bit distant and the songs are completely different.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

ARNOLD: Standing at dawn along the banks of the Ohio River, Kroodsma eavesdropped on this Eastern Wood-pewee, a tiny olive-gray bird often difficult to see.

(Soundbite of the Eastern Wood-pewee singing)

ARNOLD: But as Kroodsma cycled across the country, this distinct song changed mid-continent, just across the Great Plains. The plaintive song of the east gives way to the harsher strains of the Western Wood-pewee, although the two birds are practically indistinguishable in appearance.

(Soundbite of the Western Wood-pewee singing)

ARNOLD: Through intense listening and study of bird dialect, Kroodsma asked the question of how a bird acquires his song and found that place is often more important than genealogy. And this past summer, cycling west from Virginia through Kentucky and up into Illinois, Kroodsma made another discovery that broadened his focus a bit.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Mr. KROODSMA: The songs of birds change just as much as the songs of the people.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Mr. TERRY OWENS(ph) (Haysi, Virginia): My name is Terry Owens. I'm from Haysi, Virginia. For me, some of the bird songs are kind of hard to tell the difference. But now, some of those unique ones that stands out, I think that I like to hear the lard owl(ph). I enjoy listening to that one because it says `Who's cooking for you now?' You know, all that. And I just enjoy it. And especially with the kids. And it's been a while since I've got to hear one. And it--there's also the whip-poor-will. You know, it's getting time to hear those again. And to me now, that is very special if we get to hear that now, which that's getting rare.

ARNOLD: Kroodsma couldn't help himself and began recording the dialect, not only of birds, but of the people he met along the way.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Mr. KROODSMA: And I now feel comfortable to stop and say `Oh, I love the way you talk. I love the wa--little twang in that couple of words there. Can you tell me where you grew up? Can you tell me where you traveled?' And the journeys that people have taken and where they pick up these different words are fascinating.

Mr. KROODSMA: Tell me your name please.

Mr. CHARLES HAUPT: Charles Haupt, H-A-U-P-T.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Mr. KROODSMA: What are these birds here?

Mr. HAUPT: These are the purple martins. We've had this store here in our family continuously operating since 1893, and the colony of purple martins, which we're standing on one of the boxes, has got 36 holes. We've got a pretty good amount of birds this year. They're singing. They're happy. They like people. They like for you to stand around talking to them just like we're doing now.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Mr. KROODSMA: Everybody it turns out is a bird lover.

Mr. JOHN GILES(ph): John, John Giles. A whip-poor-will to me is summertime in Salem, Illinois. And I found one one time on the--in around the parking lot and it stayed there all day. And I thought that was so fascinating because you don't get to see these guys very often. You know, you hear them, but you don't really get to see them because they blend in so well. But to me, that's summertime. That's like a watermelon, you know, with the whip-poor-will.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Ms. POLLY INGRAM RAY(ph): My name is Polly Ingram Ray. I listen to birds every day, and I feed them. I just lay there in my bed and listen to them, they're so nice to listen to. And I'm a widow. I'm by myself and I enjoy my birds.

ARNOLD: Kroodsma's repeating the trip again this summer and says it's kind of an affirmation of his work, learning that there are people all over who care and listen as much as he does.

Mr. KROODSMA: And these were people I found out in the country walking their dogs, not living in the cities. And this was one of the major points of Mary Lou Napier(ph). `I'm a hillbilly from Kentucky and that's just fine. You may live back there in the city, but you don't have what we have here.'

Ms. MARY LOU NAPIER: We've got all of this to listen to, and in the city it's boop, beep, beeping, horns blowing, people screaming and hollering things.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Ms. NAPIER: Listen to that. Now this you don't find in the cities. That's why I love Kentucky. I drive a bus, but I'm not doing it right now. When I--of the evenings, out on the porch and just listening to them sounds.

Mr. KROODSMA: I have this confidence that people are ready to listen in ways that they have never listened before.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

Mr. KROODSMA: There's this wonderful Zen parable. `What's that you said?' asked the Zen master. `You say you've heard hundreds of birds sing? Ah, but have you heard the bird or the label? If you listen to a thrush and hear a thrush, you've not really heard the thrush. But if you listen to a thrush and hear a miracle, then you've heard the thrush.'

(Soundbite of birds singing)

ARNOLD: For Radio Expeditions, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

INSKEEP: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. Photos from Don Kroodsma's life on the road and other Radio Expedition reports are at npr.org.

(Soundbite of birds singing)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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