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Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds

Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds: North America, Britain, and Northern Europe

John Bevis
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds
    Book Description:

    Birds sing and call, sometimes in complex and beautiful arrangements of notes, sometimes in one-line repetitions that resemble a ringtone more than a symphony. Listening, we are stirred, transported, and even envious of birds' ability to produce what Shelley called "profuse strains of unpremeditated art." And for hundreds of years, we have tried to write down what we hear when birds sing. Poets have put birdsong in verse (Thomas Nashe: "Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo") and ornithologists have transcribed bird sounds more methodically. Drawing on this history of bird writing, in Aaaaw to Zzzzzd John Bevis offers a lexicon of the words of birds. For tourists in Birdland, there could be no more charming phrasebook. Consulting it, we find seven distinct variations of "hoo" attributed to seven different species of owls, from a simple hoo to the more ambitious hoo hoo hoo-hoo, ho hoo hoo-hoo; the understated cheet of the tree swallow; the resonant kreeaaaaaaaaaaar of the Swainson's hawk; the modest peep peep peep of the meadow pipit. We learn that some people hear the Baltimore oriole saying "here, here, come right here, dear" and the yellowhammer saying "a little bit of bread and no cheese." Bevis, a poet, frames his lexicons--one for North America and one for Britain and northern Europe--with an evocative appreciation of birds, birdsong, and human attempts to capture the words of birds in music and poetry. He also offers an engaging account of other methods of documenting birdsong--field recording, graphic notation, and mechanical devices including duck calls and the serinette, an instrument used to teach song tunes to songbirds. The singing of birds is nature at its most sublime, and words are our medium for expressing this sublimity. Aaaaw to Zzzzzd belongs in the bird lover's backpack and on the word lover's bedside table, an unexpected and sui generis pleasure.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28919-1
    Subjects: Linguistics, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. What’s So Special about Birds?
    (pp. 1-6)

    Let’s start at home. I’m in my Shropshire garden, an untidy patch whose lower slopes were last seen pitching into woods somewhere toward the River Severn. The rain stopped a little while ago, and the air’s full of that sweet smell of wet foliage, the hazy patter of water droplets shaking through the hedges, warm moist air lifting off uncut grass. There’s a blue tit on bug patrol, picking over the green pigment of lichen on the dark side of a holly tree. An agitation in the clematis overwhelming the back wall emerges as that little familiar bundle of nerves,...

  6. The Songs of Birds
    (pp. 7-22)

    Years ago I attended a weekend course in birdwatching at Dartington College, Devon, in the English west country. It was just for fun, really, not something I needed to do, because of course I already knew how to birdwatch. I’d done it in parks and gardens in London—disused cemeteries too—on Surrey heaths and downland, in Norfolk wetlands, Welsh estuaries, Scottish moorland. And this is what I’d learned. When you’re out birdwatching, you stop walking and start prowling. You become a private eye on the case, lurking in the shadows, knowing that any noise or abrupt movement might give...

  7. The Words of Birds
    (pp. 23-34)

    It was all so simple when I went birdwatching at Dartington, with the inestimable Colin as a guide, to locate birds by their calls and pick out one species from another. I’m sure I was not the only one to finish the weekend feeling flattered that I was becoming quite the expert. But back on home turf it was a different story. My back garden rang with such a chorus of song as to put any fledgling bird listener in a tizz, or else with the paucity of a few abbreviated squawks and chirps that were impossible to identify. The...

  8. In Birdland
    (pp. 35-38)

    It’s a bright warm day in May and we’re twenty miles north of Autun, Burgundy, walking through the Suze valley. The land falls away on our right down to the river, or stream as it is this high in its course. Broad grazing land, pasture for sheep and Charolais cattle, small coppices and occasional wiry trees at the boundaries of the fields. Behind the hedge someone is whistling for his dog. Whistling rather well, actually. Never mind being a shepherd, he should go on stage. No sign of the dog, nor of the whistler come to that. As we make...

  9. Introduction to the Lexicon
    (pp. 39-44)

    What follows is an attempt to compile the most plausible notations for the most distinctive calls of the most commonly heard birds of North America, Britain, and northern Europe.

    That geographical coverage relates to the distribution of this book more than the distribution of birds. In fact, looking through distribution charts it strikes me that the short-eared owl is possibly the only species (other than booksellers) to breed exclusively where this book is sold. For the rest, the charts show no two species occupying precisely the same territories for residing, breeding, wintering, and visiting on passage.

    The overall picture then...

  10. Lexicon for North America
    (pp. 45-82)
  11. Lexicon for Great Britain and Northern Europe
    (pp. 83-112)
  12. Mnemonics
    (pp. 113-118)

    Mnemonics for bird sounds are listed separately, as they are formulated in a different way. The “bird words” of the main lexicon attempt true phonetic equivalents of the sounds birds make, whereas mnemonics catch the rhythm and emphasis of the song in words and phrases from the English language, regardless of the failure of vowel or, especially, consonant sounds to equate. One particular mnemonic takes this detachment one stage further: rather than supply the rhythm of the song, the phrase for the chaffinch describes an event whose own rhythm suggests the song.

    This selection is not intended to be, and...

  13. Some Other Methods of Collecting Birdsong
    (pp. 119-136)

    The verbal or phonetic notation of birdsong has a particular niche in bird literature, but of course it is only one method among many of collecting sound. As a context for the viability of “bird words,” it seems useful to consider some of the alternative means, aural and graphic, by which humans reproduce, represent, recreate, document, and utilize bird sound.

    Contemporary field guides to birdsong are commonly audio books accompanied by CDs of birds performing in the wild. Their great advantages over verbal notation are veracity and lack of ambiguity; their disadvantages that they record the particular rather than the...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 137-140)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 141-144)