Books of the week: What the robin knows, and how it migrates

Note to reader: I've been a tad lax in keeping up with what I intend to be a regular feature. Sorry! So, today, here are TWO books that have come across my desk recently that look especially interesting.

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On many spring and early summer mornings, I can't sleep. There's just too much interesting stuff going on out in the yard.

A nearby window is usually open, and at four I might wake up for the first crowing of my rooster, Jack-o. (My husband is less enthralled with this.)

Then I'll fall asleep, maybe, until 5, when the birdsong kicks in. It starts slowly -- just one tweet, then two, then a snippet of a song --  then builds. Soon it's a glorious cacaphony.

Sometimes, I can go back to sleep. Sometimes, it's just too exciting.

Recently, I had to get up and, as I headed for the kitchen to start the coffee, I pulled "What the Robin Knows" off the bookshelf. Author Jon Young was about to show me the potential here...how much I could learn if I just paid more attention.

As Young notes, we are "cosseted humans" who have lost much of our sensory keenness," but that with work -- although it's fun, actually -- we can get some of it back.

As a kid growing up in Monmouth County, N.J., Young was hungry for learning. "I identified every bird I saw and heard," he writes. "If I couldn't do so on the first encounter, I went back the next day, and the next. If I heard a sound from a bird I hadn't heard before, I grabbed my binoculars and went searching until I found the source -- or left defeated, but determined to find it at the next opportunity."

Gradually, he began to do more than that. As he watched and studied, he learned the more subtle body language and vocalizations. So much so that, when he was in a house one time with others, he turned his attention to two birds outside. One was singing. One was eating tiny spiders. Then one of the birds jumped. The other pumped its tail in alarm. Young turned to his host and said, "Hey, there's a cat coming." A few seconds later, to the amazement of the host, a cat slunk by.

This is what Young calls "deep bird language," and it's "the key to understanding both the backyard and the forest." He says the robin is the bird that's the most expressive, the one that's had so much to teach him. Good news for us, because it's so common and most people know it.

He has me hooked, and I can't wait to learn the techniques he presents -- how to reduce my disturbance and expand my awareness.

By 6, I was out on the front porch, ears tuned. My study subject will be the wren that has made a nest in a hanging basket of impatiens. That night, it brought a large insect to the nest, but I didn't hear any young. That's already changed -- they're quite demanding! And now when I sit outside, I get a stern scolding from the wren.

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Earlier this spring, when I was working on a story about the danger that glass buildings are for migrating birds, one of the researchers said he thought that young birds often were the victims. He said that many species have three navigation systems, and that young birds just haven't become expert enough at them to avoid the buildings.

So how do they navigate -- either on migration or in my yard? How do they learn? James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould explain it all in"Nature's Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation."

The Goulds, science writers from Princeton, hooked me from the beginning, describing a shipwreck off Bermuda. The humans had navigated incorrectly. But in all likelihood, that very night, at least 30 species were passing overhead, "maintaining their steady course" south.

"Few sights are more impressive to earthbound people than an isolated formation of geese passing overhead on their way to distant summer or wintering grounds," the goulds write. "Theirs is not a journey on a wing and a prayer: all bu7t first-year birds have a detailed map of the route in their brains, complete with remembered landmarks for piloting. " And songbirds use "multiple compasses and a mystical GPS sense to find their way."

The Goulds explore the expert navigation systems of homing pigeons. And not just birds, but also insects.

Some of it appears to be fairly technical, but not impenetrable.

Far easier, I'm sure, to understand what the birds do than to try to do what the birds do.

AUTHOR EVENT: Carol Grant could will speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia July 10 at 7:30 p.m. More information is here.

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