Birdsongs From The Arctic To The Southern Swamps The pop-up book Birdscapes catalogues the calls of birds from all over the world, from Yellow-billed Loons on remote Arctic lakes to King Rails in southern swamps. Author Miyoko Chu of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells the stories behind how these bird songs were collected.
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Birdsongs From The Arctic To The Southern Swamps

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Birdsongs From The Arctic To The Southern Swamps

Birdsongs From The Arctic To The Southern Swamps

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: You're listening to Talk of the Nation, Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow, we're talking about birds - every year at this time - a part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count with my guests Geoff LeBaron, who is the Christmas Bird Count director for the National Audubon Society. John Fitzpatrick is the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. And my next guest also comes from the Cornell lab. Dr. Miyoko Chu is the author of "Birdscapes," a pop-up celebration of bird songs in stereo sound. She's director of communications at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And she joins us by phone today. Welcome to Science Friday.

MIYOKO CHU: Thank you, Ira.

: Now this is such a terrific - I'm going to open up the book because it - it just makes so many beautiful bird noises. And from different - if you can't get out to the bird count and go to all these different places, you can open the book.


: And listen to the birds. This one is the Sonoran desert.


: Wow. Wow. You just want to be transported there, Dr. Chu.

CHU: Yeah. So, as you open up this book, you can hear that in stereo sound. But also - we can't see it on the radio, but you see an intricate pop-up scene showing that landscape and the birds that are making those sounds.

: Beautiful landscape. It's almost a foot high, you know, it just pops-up. It's the best pop-up book I've ever seen. And how were the sounds collected?

CHU: Each sound in this book was collected by a recordist who had to go out and track that bird down, sometimes with an incredible amount of patience to get that in a recording. And all the sounds were drawn from our Macaulay Library, the world's largest collection of natural sounds. We had a lot to draw from. But even so, some of the sounds were collected on recent expeditions to feel in gaps in that collection of birds that we hadn't recorded yet.

: One of the few sounds you recorded for the book is the yellow-billed loon, which breeds up there in the Arctic. Let's hear that one now.


CHU: This is a beautiful sound that you can hear from miles as you walk across the tundra. And yet, the sounds are still a challenge to record. Garrett Vinn(ph), our recordist, was very excited when he located a pair on a recent expedition, got himself under a camouflage cloth and waited there for 16 hours as the pair went around the microphone without ever vocalizing. It was another full year before he had the chance to go back, this time recording remotely and letting it run. And on his way back to the airport, he listened to those tapes and, lo and behold, that beautiful sound was on there.

: Let me turn the page in the pop-up book and go to our next location. You can hear the creak. Pacific seabird colony


CHU: These are great sounds of birds that have been at sea for most of the year and then come and cram themselves on to these crest-like rocks in the ocean to breed, some of them standing shoulder to shoulder. And they are loud and vociferous and social. And they like to talk to each other. They're courting and they're locating each other by their voices.

: Let's turn the page. This is such a great book, I just want to let the book speak for itself. Turn the page, we're now at the Eastern deciduous forest.


: Now, the pop up has those woodpeckers right at the top of the trees, popping up right out of the book.

CHU: Yeah, those nice knocking sounds. And the thing I love about that scene is that it includes the voices of birds that are wonderful songsters that aren't here now. They've gone to the tropics for the winter and we all look forward to that beautiful sound in the spring.

: Mm hmm. Let's continue our tour. This time we're moving to the Arctic tundra.


: What are we hearing in this one, Dr. Chu?

CHU: Hearing a long-tailed duck. We heard from a willow ptarmigan and a snowy owl and that call of the yellow-billed loon that we heard earlier.

: That's snowy owl pops right up out of the middle. This is - surrounded by all this other wonderful pop-up material here.

CHU: Yeah, you know, when you think of the Arctic tundra being so flat, it was actually quite a challenge for the pop-up artists to create a popup out of something flat. But they did a great job with mountains and melting water and lakes to show this habitat.

: Well, if everybody wants to see - hear the rest of the book, it's called "Birdscapes: A Pop-Up Celebration of Bird Songs in Stereo Sound. And Miyoko Chu with Cornell Lab of Ornithology is here. How do you decide what to leave out? You couldn't put all the sounds in there, could you?

CHU: Oh, would have been amazing if we could've but we picked seven landscapes and chose them to contrast, whether it was a desert or, you know, the Arctic or a swamp. And then we picked the voices of birds that we thought were characteristic of those places and that would provide a lot of interest for people listening in.

: Well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

CHU: Thank you.

: Dr. Miyoko Chu is the author of "Birdscapes: A Pop-up Celebration of Bird Songs in Stereo Sound." If you missed the holiday gift, you know, or if it's a little bit late, this is the book. I would recommend they get it. It'll please kids, adults, everybody. It's a beautiful pop-up book and the sounds in it are priceless. Let's check back to Brooklyn. When we last left Michelle Dreger she was taking her tour. She's giving her tour of Prospect Park and seeing what there is to see in birding. Let's see what she finally - finally the count that she came up with.

DREGER: So, what do we have?

: One Kingfisher. At the vale, I saw four blue jays and there were two cardinals there. We saw the three swans. We saw a lot of white-throated sparrows. I don't have a number on them, except the ones that we just saw up on the hill. We saw six mallards. I counted one gull - you know there's many more than one. Forty-five Canadian geese, 12 coots, 14 robins, five cardinals, two house sparrows, 11 morning doves, three gold finches, two downy woodpecker females, one white-breasted nuthatch, one chickadee, one rusty blackbird, a male in winter plumage, two red-winged blackbirds, one junco, which is probably not accurate, one tifted - tufted, rather, titmouse, one kestrel, one Roufus-sided towhee - those were the cardinals - two red-tailed hawks, one was a juvenile, and one song sparrow. And then four white-throats that we saw on the hill and one blue jay - one more blue jay.

DREGER: And that's how you count birds.

: Now the only thing missing was a partridge in a pear tree. On that one, Geoff and John?

LEBARON: That's a really nice count. It's a good illustration how you don't have to be out in some beautiful, pristine remote spot in the country. You can get a really remarkable bird list from a really good urban park, in a backyard or in the middle of a city.

FITZPATRICK: And it also really shows that you - I mean, something like the Christmas Count or the Great Backyard Bird Count is a really great way for anybody who wants to to get involved because you don't actually have to know exactly every bird, even most of the birds, in order to spot things and enjoy things and enjoy being out there. And especially with the Christmas Count, anybody that's a beginner will be paired with, you know, people who are knowledgeable, as the guide was there. So, it's just a wonderful way of getting going.

: Well, how do people get on the list or become a part of this for next year?

FITZPATRICK: For the Christmas Count there's a - we - on the Christmas Bird Count Web site is And there's a link on there to get involved and that actually - there's a circle search tool there where you can actually look at the dates that have been posted for counts in - state by state or province by province. And I wanted to mention that we actually have counts all the way, as you said, from the high Arctic. But for the first time, this year I think we're going to have a count submitted from the actual mainland of Antarctic done at Cape Croker. So, we're actually extending our coverage even further south and Audubon's really thrilled about getting more and more coverage in Latin America and further south there.

: There are a lot of birds down there.


: Yeah. Let's go to Dolores in Adrian, Missouri. Hi, Dolores.

DOLORES: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

: Hi there. You're welcome.

DOLORES: We have a mystery bird. We live in south - well, central Missouri, right in the middle of the Midwest. We have lots of hawks, but we have a falcon we think. It's got the feathered legs - this is a bird that's been here for about a year. There's only one of them and it's white with black spots. The closest thing we've been able to find a picture of is the gyrfalcon. But that's an arctic bird. And we only had one of them...

FITZPATRICK: Have you seen the bird all year round?

DOLORES: It hasn't changed in a year.

LEBARON: And you have it year-round?

DOLORES: We have it year-round, yes.

LEBARON: Yeah, then it wouldn't be...

DOLORES: It's all by itself.

FITZPATRICK: And it's fairly large?

DOLORES: It's a - yes, it's a big bird. We have lots of hawk.

FITZPATRICK: My guess, Geoff, would be...

DOLORES: It's a little bigger than our little hawks.

FITZPATRICK: That's the red-tailed hawk.

: You think it's a red-tailed hawk?


DOLORES: No, we have - we have...

FITZPATRICK: I would guess red-tailed hawk. What do you think, Jeff?

DOLORES: Hundreds of red-tailed hawks but it's bigger than that and it's white and it's got furry legs.

LEBARON: It's - there're - sometimes there are - I mean, as we were talking about the probable dark, you know, unusually dark pheasant, one of the things that happens fairly - well, I mean, it's rare, but it does happen with some frequency - is you get albanistic or mostly white red-tailed hawks. And white birds tend to look a lot bigger. And I want - especially since it stays around, I would wonder if it might be something like that.

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, my guess is red-tailed hawk and also, one thing to know about hawks in general is that the females, surprisingly, are substantially bigger than males. So, that's true basically all across the hawks and owls of the world and so you might have - and, by the way, out in the - on the edge of the woods or over corn fields and things, red-tailed hawks really do basically look white when they're sitting.

: All right. Let's go to Chuck in Meadowlands, Minnesota. Hi, Chuck.

CHUCK: Hi. How are you doing? Anyway, I just - I'm sitting up here in the middle of the Sax Zim bog and you know, like three or four years ago, we had a huge eruption of owls and just tons of great grays. And unfortunately, you know, hundreds were actually killed by, you know, running into vehicles and stuff. And then we had a couple of absolutely barren years, but this year, they're showing back up again. And so, there have been several sightings and of course, as you've had stated earlier, lots of snowy owls and also, we've got some Northern hawk owls down here.

: Wow.

CHUCK: And I just had a black-backed three-toed woodpecker in the woods here in the front of the house just the other day. And I didn't take part in the bog bird count this year and - I was gone - but anyway, it looks like we could have another great year for owls.

: Hang on there with that thought because I have to remind everybody that this is Science Friday from NPR News.

FITZPATRICK: Ira, you just heard - you just heard, as bird counts go, you just heard a series of very, very classy birds.

: Well, you know, that brings up a question. I have a question from Second Life from Derf(ph) Alexander, who says, how do you count owls if they're - if they only come out at night?

LEBARON: Well, the birds that actually they're counting, most - a lot of the birds that they're counting up at the Sax Zim are actually out - you do see them during the daytime.

CHUCK: They're diurnal.

LEBARON: But yeah, they're diurnal. I also quickly wanted to say actually that the Sax Zim bog has the record high count for great gray owls in the entire database. So, that's a wonderful place.

CHUCK: That's great.

FITZPATRICK: Most of the other owls that we count actually are done by voice at night.

: Ah.

FITZPATRICK: On Christmas counts.

CHUCK: Yeah, we have a lot of...

: What makes that bog so great for owls?

LEBARON: It's - well, for one thing, it's way up there and many of these birds - I think there's fairly good visibility. Unfortunately, I haven't been there by myself. But I believe it's a place where the birds and be relatively easily spotted when they're teed up. And Northern Minnesota is known - it's one of those places where people who are really interested in owls go up there in the winter and look for these wonderful northern owls.

: Let me stay in Minnesota, in Oakdale, and ask Amy. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.

AMY: Hi.

: Hi there.

AMY: Yes, we are and...

: I need you to turn your radio down. Amy, I need you to turn your radio down.

AMY: I'm sorry?

: Need you to turn your radio down or whatever is noisy in the background.

AMY: Oh, OK. I'll step outside here, I'm sorry. We're in Minnesota and this morning we saw four bluebirds and we're concerned that they are still in the area and we're wondering if that's normal and/or what we can do - what we can feed them to help them out.

LEBARON: It sounds pretty unusual for you to have bluebirds up there in the winter, but it's...

FITZPATRICK: What town in Minnesota are you at?

AMY: We're in Oakdale - we're right in the metro area, Twin Cities area.


FITZPATRICK: Yeah, I actually grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I agree with Geoff. It's a rare bird in the wintertime, but there are still - there're always a few. We even saw them back in the '50s and '60s, usually two to four. They live in very small groups, and most - almost entirely eating berries this time of year.


FITZPATRICK: So, if they're hanging around the Twin City metro area, they're probably feeding on ornamental hawthorn berries and rosebuds and things like that.

: Thanks, Amy.

LEBARON: You can also put out mealworms for them, if they are actually hanging around in your yard.

: Do you count, like, non-native species or birds that have escaped pet shops and things like that?

LEBARON: Well...

: I know there are a whole bunch of parrots that live in Brooklyn.

LEBARON: We certainly do. On Christmas counts, we count everything. And actually, it's - well, in many ways, it's as important to keep track of the birds that are introduced and exotic species to see if they do become established as it is to track what's going on with the native species. And so, absolutely, we track the monk parakeets in Brooklyn. And you can go down to South Florida and see just about the range of parrots from all over the world down there, free flying in the wild. And we count a lot of them on Christmas counts, too.

: And they come with the tourists?

LEBARON: They do.


FITZPATRICK: In fact, one of the things that the Christmas Count - the Audubon Christmas Count has done is it has given a spectacular track through the decades of how some of these species have started fairly small and local, and then, little by little, started to spread across the whole part of the U.S. So, the Christmas Count is one of the most important, long-term, scientifically valuable databases for tracking how distributions have changed through the years.

: Well, gentlemen, I wish you great luck and good fortune in this year's Christmas Count.

LEBARON: Thank you very much.

: And...

FITZPATRICK: Thank you. I'll be tromping the snows of Ithaca on January 1st.

LEBARON: I'll be down in Rhode Island tomorrow.

: Well, good luck to you, and we'll all meet back here again next year.

LEBARON: It's a date.

FITZPATRICK: Deal, look forward to it.

: Have a great weekend, and happy New Year.

LEBARON: You, too.


: Geoff LeBaron is the chairman of the Christmas Bird Count - he's the director for the National Audubon Society. John Fitzpatrick is the director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. And I also want to thank Miyoko Chu, who is the author of "Birdscapes: A Pop-Up Celebration of Bird Songs in Stereo Sound."


: That's about all the time we have for Science Friday this week. If you're going out there, counting the birds, dress warmly. Greg Smith composed our theme music, and we had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. Surf over to our Web site at, and we've got all kinds of bird-related materials there. Also, we've got the Science Friday pic of the week, which is also bird-related. Boy, everything is coming up feathers this week. Also, if you'd like to email us or podcasting, blogging, Twittering - you name it, we'll try it - if you have any - maybe you have some birds you saw that you'd like to send us for - your video, you took some pictures of birds this weekend, we'd like to feature them and your videos, if you have some to send to us. Have a great weekend. Happy New Year. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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