Friday, May 11, 2012

Another Good Book: Bird Talk

Bird Talk: What Birds are Saying and Why
Written and illustrated by Lita Judge
48 pages, ages 6 -9
Flash Point/Roaring Brook 2012

Spring is noisy: the days open with a symphony of bird calls. Who are these raucous neighbors and what are they singing about? If you want to know what those chirp, warbles, quacks, coos, rattles and screeches mean, then ask Lita.

Lita Judge grew up with birds on her brain: she spent early mornings in the marshes watching hawks; she raised orphan birds; and she recorded birdsongs in order to learn their calls. In Bird Talk, Judge plays the role of avian-to-human translator. She shows how birds sing to attract mates, proclaim their territory and call their chicks.

Some birds strut their stuff, banging and booming to let others know they’re in the neighborhood. Others dance, leaping and bowing in an elegant ballet. Chicks peep to alert mama that they’re ready to come out of their eggs. And not all birds are born knowing the family song; some youngsters learn to sing by listening to their parents.

I managed to catch Lita during a free moment between projects for a quick interview. Clearly, this book is the culmination of a lifetime of observing and sketching birds. But once she decided on this project, it took her three years. Of course, she was working on another project as well.

“I worked back and forth a lot, researching and drawing one bird and then the next,” says Judge. “My goal was to create an overview of several different kinds of communication behaviors and give readers a better understanding and respect for the complexity and beauty of bird communication.”

Lita gets eye-to-eye with a crow
Judge grew up surrounded by birds – her grandparents were ornithologists and her parents photographed wildlife. As a kid, Judge recorded songbirds. It wasn’t fancy equipment – just a clunky cassette recorder. “But what I lacked in equipment I made up for in patience,” she says. “I learned how to be very still and get very close, and on a calm day was able to capture some pretty wonderful sounds.” Some of her favorite tapes were recorded in a marsh. “Picture a happy kid wading about the marsh from the inside of a big inner tube, camouflaged under a tipi of marsh reeds. I was devoured by mosquitoes and black flies,” says Judge, “but I can still hear the trill of Yellow-winged Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens in my ears.”

 One of the things Judge mentions in her book is that Robins have hundreds of songs. Really?

“Yes,” says Judge. “Male robins use a combination of simple whistle ‘caroling’ phrases and more complex high-pitched ‘hisselly’ phrases to create a seemingly endless variety of calls.” She references Don Kroodsma’s book (The Singing Life of Birds) and reveals that the best time to hear these songs is at dawn and dusk, when male robins sing long combinations of the ‘carol’ and ‘hissely’ phrases together.

Judge refers to her illustrations as loose sketches and watercolor washes. “I focused more on the gesture of the bird rather than the exact feather pattern and scientific detail,” she said. “For this book I thought capturing the body language of the birds was essential. How a bird lifts its head, places its body, leans toward its mate is just as important as the sound of the call.” And after all those years in the field, Judge has noticed that often her rough, quick sketches capture the nature of a bird much better than a detail drawing .

So what words of advice does Judge have for young artists and naturalists?

“Be patient and enjoy! Learn how to be sit still and quiet in the woods – you will see so much more. When you walk and talk and do other activities the birds often stay at a distance and their behavior is interrupted. If you sit quietly under a tree, they’ll come back and start going about their business.

“Watch one bird over a long time and you will start to notice behaviors you’ve never seen before. And draw what you see in a journal. Also try following where a bird goes when he flies and you might find where it’s nesting – but don’t go too close to the nest. You don’t want to disturb the babies or leave your scent nearby which might bring a predator close. Instead, wait for the baby birds to fledge and leave the nest.

“And listen to the different calls they make. My favorite sound of all is the sound a baby bird makes when being fed. It’s kind of an overexcited gagging kind of call that will alert you instantly to the presence of a baby bird nearby once you hear it.”

Judge is busy working on a new project, but she still has time to watch the birds in her back yard. A couple weeks ago the phoebes started building a nest in her woodshed. What’s going on with the birds in your backyard?

Check out other science and math book reviews and kid-oriented STEM resources at STEM Friday. And make sure to drop by Nonfiction Monday too. Book provided by the publisher.


  1. I need to look at more science picture books for my middle school in some curricular areas. Thanks for a good overview of this one, and for participating in Nonfiction Monday

  2. Lita's books are lovely - I am so glad you chose to feature her for Nonfiction Monday!

    Red Sled is my new favorite.

  3. Hi there Sue. This sounds like a fascinating book! I loved everything that you shared as well as that beautiful photograph. Perfect for young naturalists. :)