John Muir’s Birds

John MuirI was reading on the train home recently: John Muir‘s The Story of My Boyhood and YouthIt’s a fabulous book, hilarious at times, deeply thoughtful, and beautifully, beautifully written. (John Muir is the “Father of the National Parks”–see The Camping Trip that Changed America by Barb Rosenstock) He lived in Scotland until he was about 11, then immigrated to rural Minnesota with his super-strict father. Honestly, it’s a wonder he survived his exquisitely rambunctious early childhood and the ridiculously extreme farm labor of his early teens. He also invented incredible things like working clocks–hand-carved out of hickoryhaving never seen the inside of a clock before! I don’t recall seeing this book in the Children’s Department (yet), but it would be PERFECT for fans of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (which now has an awesome field guide), and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.

And did I mention that it is beautifully written? I was sitting on the train marveling at his description of the birdsongs he recalled from when he first arrived in Minnesota. For instance, he describes the sound of a huge flock of redwing blackbirds:

“Alighting on nearby trees, they sing with a hearty vengeance, bursting out without any puttering prelude in gloriously glad concert, hundreds or thousands of exulting voices with sweet gurgling baumpalees mingled with chippy vibrant and exploding globules of musical notes, making a most enthusiastic, indescribable joy-song, a combination unlike anything to be heard elsewhere in the bird kingdom; something like bagpipes, flutes, violins, pianos, and human-like voices all bursting and bubbling at once.”

“What would that actually sound like?” I asked myself. After some phone googling, I found there are plenty of samples out there like this one:

All his descriptions are amazing, especially considering that he wrote this as a recollection probably decades after the fact. So I spent some time listening to samples of all the different birds he describes–The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a comprehensive site with sound clips called All About Birds. I wondered if there is a birdsongs app that kids could use–and there is: Chirp! Bird Song USA features the same recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, you can hear common songs by region, sort by song types, and set up a quiz to test your memory.

Granted, I would rather be able to go out and find these birds and hear them in person–but until I get there, I’ve already started listening and identifying where I am. Those little brownish chirpers that are on my back deck (and everywhere in the city) are called House Sparrows! I’m sure there is a great outdoor library program for kids somewhere in here…

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