All of the sudden we have bird multi-media everywhere. On the last day of work for the regular school year, a fellow teacher gave my wife two presents; a little plastic device that takes plastic cards with chips inside them which in turn contain bird songs and vocalizations that go with drawings and other information about the bird, and a “Bionic Ear” that you can use to listen to your friends talk about you or when that gets boring, to listen to birds and stuff that are far away. Meantime, I got a copy of an iAuthored iBook on birds that I’ve reviewed here. And all this has caused there to be musings in my head about multi-media technology, birds, and birding.

A page from the new iBook (a form of eBook) “Music of the Birds: Volume 1” by Lang Elliott and Marie Read.

The very first multi-media resource for leaning birds were birds. In the old days, in many societies, young people would spend time either alone (often for boys) or with their sisters or mothers (for girls) in the wild parts of their homeland, either just sitting around learning about stuff by observation, or by carrying out quiet tasks that kept them in and near nature in a away that nature would sort of go on without you and let you notice it. There are famous overly dramatic renditions of this for the guy folk that you know about …. the walkabout and the vision quest for example. But it seems that many societies have a version of this that is less dramatic. Among the Efe (Pygmy) people that I lived with in the 1980s, the young men would in fact disappear from the bosom of their families and spend a lot of time, perhaps months, living on their own in the forest. The young women and girls spent a lot of time with each other and older women quietly gathering forest stuff (medicines, foods). That for the latter nature went on without them, letting them observe, seems to be proved by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a big difference in your chance of getting wounded by a small to medium forest mammal if you are hunting them or if you are gathering plant products. I know of many cases where young women were gouged or gored by something that didn’t hear or see them, and visa versa, until the very last second.

So you learned the birds and all the other things by immersing yourself in their world.

In the early days of the “modern” world (meaning since some time after the Enlightenment, or later, depending on what you call “modern”) we did get bird books, but the bird books were all words, no pictures. There existed as well rare monographs by great artists like Audubon, that very wealthy people would own but that were more likely to be seen in an institutional setting. An avid birder would perhaps visit a museum where stuffed birds were the multi-media of the day, and if you knew the curator (or were the curator!) you’d get to see the much larger samples of prepared specimens in the drawers.

Or get your own. Among the gentry there seems not to have been much of a line between being a bird watcher and a bird hunter, and the home naturalist could certainly develop a nice private collection.

When I was a kid the collecting and preserving of specimens was still very much in vogue, and I collected and even taxidermied things myself. Not birds, though. I did process a few incidentally found-as-dead birds but I was not into collecting them, and at that point, collecting birds was not considered typical. Frogs and fish and insects and rodents yes, but not birds. And in those days there were bird books with pictures in them. One, mainly, Peterson’s, because it had been out for a few decades and it was good. There were other books, scaled down Audubon monographs and such, but I remember there being only a couple of versions of the Golden guide and Peterson.

Some time in the late 1990s (the readers of this blog will please jump in here and correct me if I’m wrong about this) a slow and steady diversification of bird books that had been brewing for 15 years or so suddenly underwent a sort of “species radiation” but instead of species it was bird books. And now, the number of bird books is approximately one gazillion.

And now, with smart phones and tablets, the bird books can be electronic.

Field guides on iPads and other tablets are of very limited use as actual pocket guides for two reasons. First, you don’t want to drop your $400 toy into a swamp, get bug killer on it, or otherwise mess it up while in the bush. Second, the stuff on the screen looks great in the house but your very ability to see the screen may be seriously at risk depending on field conditions. But, many, probably most, bird books one would carry around while birding are not pocket guides to bring to the bush anyway. They are for the car or the porch. And there, and in the nearby living room of the cabin or country home or hotel or park visitor center the tablet excels, and some of the products that are available now are working pretty good. I mention in the aforementioned review what I think about some of the currently available eGuides. They are not all created equal. I’ll do a fuller review of iPad based birding resources some time over the next few weeks. If things go well, I may work on this in the bush this weekend. It all depends on the dogs. Which keep eating rat poison. But I digress.

One of the great things about eBooks on birds is the potential for both video and sound. You can have Harry Potter style pictures! And the bird calls. Bring an external speaker along some day. Call the birds in!

And, as we learned last weekend, you don’t have to limit access to multimedia sounds to the ones that come on the book. We were able to record the sound of a Night Heron (during the day) with the Bionic Ear, using a memo recorder application on an iPad.

Unfortunately, the memo recorder application is really good at processing sound files for memos. So, the bird sound was edited mostly out of the file it produced while Amanda and I whispering “OK, turn it on, is it on?” and “OK, that was great, can’t wait to hear it later” was converted into pretty normal level speech ready for conversion into a memo by speech recognition software. Clearly, we need better software.

So there is another thing going on. If a long period of gradual evolution or stasis was punctuated a few years back by a species radiation of bird books, now we are seeing intense environmental change. Peterson on the iPad, sadly and frankly, kinda sucks. Audubon’s guides are passable but flawed. iBird which is a book that comes out of nowhere is very very good. We are seeing the beginnings of a mass extinction in birder’s resources and at the same time the rise of new species.

Written by Greg
Greg Laden has been watching birds since they were still dinosaurs, but has remained the consummate amateur. This is probably because he needs better binoculars. Based in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, Greg is a biological anthropologist and Africanist, who writes and teaches about Evolution, especially of humans. He also blogs at Greg's beat is Bird Evolutionary Biology. One could say that knowing the science of birds can make the birds more interesting. But really, knowing about the birds that go with the science is more likely to make the science more interesting. And thus, birding and Neo Darwinian Theory go hand in hand. Darwin was, after all, a pretty serious birder. Greg has seen a bird eat a monkey in the wild.