Ode to Spring (Birdsong and online audio)

I usually write about Serious Things … topics like broadband deployment or how smart use of technology changes lives. But today … it is SPRING!

It’s not like anyone can tell from the large gray clouds and varying amounts of water being squeezed out of the sky over the Northeast, but the lengthening days and the tick of the calendar say it is, without question, SPRING.

And so do the birds.

I’m lucky enough to live in a place that hosts a diversity of avian life and at this time of year it is as if a switch has been thrown. At the crack of dawn, the treetops erupt with a chorus of birdsong.  At least, that’s what I’d call it in Ode to Spring. At 6 am, however, I tend to call it something else.

The cats and the bird dog look hopefully out the window, paws crossed that this time maybe the foolish human will come to her senses and let them spring into action and do what comes naturally.

Instead, the foolish human turns online and separates out the cacophony of birdcall by looking at her new favorite bird site: All About Birds - http://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Every now and again, you come across something that makes you say ‘yeah, that’s what this medium is all about.’

Someplace between the marketing messages and the angst blogs of the 20-somethings and the plethora of commercial messages that blink and wiggle, you come across a moment where you pause and can see what it is we really have in front of us.

All About Birds is one of these moments.


All About Birds comes from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is beautiful to browse through. It uses the web medium for its strengths. It is well written. It is interesting.

If you want community, it has community. It has mashups. It has urban, rural, and suburban appeal. It uses video and text and still images. The little nuthatch walking down the side of the page even has a sense of humor.

It is an antidote to yucky things like naked backsides on chatroulette or the endless landscape of malls. Really, this is one of the times where you can see the web – this medium that turned our way of thinking upside down 15 years ago – for its positive potential.

But better than that, for the first time I can make sense of bird noise!

I used to stare at those little hatch-marked graphs in the bird books and just could not turn them into something my brain would hear. “The chickadee has a distinctive sound,” it would say, and show scratches and scribbles to further explain. No wonder about the only bird I could ID by sound was a crow.

But now to hear the little chickadee that we all know and love, it’s merely a click and a listen: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/sounds

Audio is a whole area that has come into its own online. I’m not talking about buying songs. That’s old news. But did you know that if you enter “pronunciation your-word-of-choice” into a Google search box, you’ll get a list of places where you can hear the word?

One of my favorites is http://www.howjsay.com. It’s a simple interface – you type in the word you want to hear spoken, and then mouse over it when it appears in pink in the found words list. That’s right, just mouseover  the pink word, and out comes the voice, speaking the word aloud.

This is especially helpful when, say, your sixth grader and you don’t agree on how to pronounce a science vocab work like organelles! (You can find out here: http://www.howjsay.com/index.php?word=organalles&submit=Submit)

Merriam-Webster and MacMillan dictionaries online include audio too.  A click on the audio button and those mysterious pronunciation symbols suddenly have meaning.


Multimedia used to be a poorly understood buzzword. Now it means that you can read a definition and hear the way the word sounds as naturally as breathing.

But I digress. The audio quality of web files has come a long way – for both human and bird voices. And bird voices mean SPRING.

Which brings me back to All About Birds, and all the ways that the web can be a medium where the many dimensions of information and connection come together. It's a beautiful thing, this reaching of potential and making a multi-sensorial environment where the birds really do sing.


With all the Serious Topics, you can forget that sometimes. But luckily, just like the spring, a reminder of what really matters can show up at the very moment you need it the most.

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