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

Popular Science

By: John Bevis

160 pages, 24

MIT Press

Hardback | Oct 2010 | #187053 | ISBN-13: 9780262014298
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £10.95 $13/€12 approx

About this book

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.

This is a most unusual compilation, surely a labor of love, in which the author, John Bevis, has heroically tried to catalogue in one alphabetical sequence all the weird and wonderful ways we have tried to represent bird songs and calls in words, ranging from the unpronounceable kdddrrddi of the summer tanager to the unforgettable witchity, witchity, witchity, witch of the common yellowthroat. But for me the most interesting parts are the sections before and after the catalogue where he discusses more generally the human response to bird song: the ingenious ways we have recorded and imitated it, the ways we have celebrated it in literature and music, and the ways we might properly compare it with our own language and song. --Jeremy Mynott, author of Birdscapes "A lexicography of surprise, subtlety, and sheer delight, Aaaaw to Zzzzzd shapes bird sound into comprehensive fabrics of sumptuous articulation." --John R. Stilgoe, Harvard University

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John Bevis is a writer, poet, and book artist living in London.

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