WHY BIRDS SING: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song

David Rothenberg, Author . Basic $26 (272p) ISBN 978-0-465-07135-7

As science explores the frontiers of the measurable, it begins to intrude into the realm of art, and this book occupies that uneasy zone. Rothenberg, a musician and philosopher, became fascinated with the similarities between human music and birds' songs. His investigations into these matters led him to zoos and forests, where he played his clarinet along with virtuoso lyrebirds and thrushes. His goal: to find out why birds sing by using "the whole toolbox of human talents," rather than just the theories and experiments of reductionist Darwinism. "Just because science demonstrates that a song has a specific territorial or sexual purpose doesn't mean that birds aren't singing because they love to," he writes. Assuming we can know what a bird loves to do is quite a bit of anthropomorphic conjecture, of course. "It may be impossible to escape the human perspective," Rothenberg writes, and then he joyfully acknowledges what he feels to be the truth: birds make music as surely as Charlie "Bird" Parker ever did. Rothenberg delves heartily into the lovely and strange structures of bird songs and finds enough syllables, rhythms and syncopations to fill a jazz encyclopedia. Illus. Agent, Kathleen Anderson. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 02/21/2005
Release date: 05/01/2005
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