Review: Songs of the Warblers

In 1985, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology partnered with the Borror Lab of Bioacoustics and Ontario Nature to produce Songs of the Warblers of North America on LP by Donald J. Borror and William W. H. Gunn.  No other source of that time period could claim to be as comprehensive: it contained no fewer than 280 cuts of song from 57 species of warblers, including mega-rarities from Mexico like Fan-tailed and Golden-crowned Warblers — even the extinct Bachman’s Warbler!  In addition, it included recordings of calls for all but eleven of those species.  For decades, this collection was the last word in warbler sounds.

Now, 25 years later, Cornell has re-released this classic, this time in MP3 format for digital download.  The song recordings are just as high-quality as ever, and I’m thrilled by the idea that their digitization might make them accessible to a whole new generation of bird enthusiasts.  But great though it was in 1985, the collection desperately needs to be expanded and revised — so desperately that I’m not sure I can recommend forking over the fifteen bucks for the download.

Here’s what I like about the collection:

  • The songs sound great. The cuts are nicely edited and, at about 25 seconds apiece, just long enough to stay interesting.
  • They capture the range of variation well in most species.  After listening to the five Borror and Gunn cuts of Olive Warbler song, you’ll be totally confused what an Olive Warbler sounds like — but anyone who listens to Olive Warblers for more than an hour in the field will be equally confused, so I call that a job well done.
  • The coverage of rare species is good.  In particular, those recordings of Bachman’s Warbler are true gems.

Here, unfortunately, is what Cornell should do if it really wants to update this guide:

  • Fill in the gaping holes.  Eleven species lack any recordings of calls whatsoever.  If they were all Mexican vagrants, I might understand, but Wilson’s Warbler?  Black-throated Blue?  You’ve got to be kidding me.
  • Bring the booklet up to snuff.  The accompanying brochure currently includes only the barest minimum of information.  It says nothing of the behavioral context of the vocalizations.  The “Type A” and “Type B” songs of many species are here, but they aren’t labeled as such, nor are subspecies labeled — so I can’t tell whether both “Western” and “Yellow” Palm Warblers are represented, for example.
  • Add flight calls. Andrew Farnsworth and colleages at Cornell have amassed a downright impressive collection of warbler flight calls, including many that don’t appear on Evans and O’Brien’s classic DVD.  Why not stick them on here?
  • Add flight songs.  Even the well-known flight songs of Ovenbird and Common Yellowthroat are missing.
  • Improve geographic coverage and representations of possible splits.  It’s nice that Myrtle and Audubon’s Warblers are treated separately, but where’s “Calaveras” Nashville Warbler?  How about Mangrove Warbler, or at least “Golden” Yellow Warbler?
  • Include common hybrids.  At a minimum, give us a Blue-winged × Golden-winged gallery with a dash of Hermit × Townsend’s.
  • Add Crescent-chested Warbler. The rarity coverage isn’t bad, but by now this species has certainly occurred north of Mexico often enough to merit inclusion.

Nostalgia is great and all, and Borror and Gunn accomplished something truly monumental in their day, but bird sound collections are supposed to be tools, not collector’s items.  And as a field tool, this reissue doesn’t quite meet the modern standard.

Let’s face it: the era of the commercial bird sound collection is pretty much over.  You can pay $15 for Borror & Gunn and listen to four examples of the song of Black-throated Gray Warbler and one example of its calls — or you can head over to Xeno-Canto and download (as of this writing) five examples of song and three examples of calls, completely free of charge.  For better or worse, the internet has democratized bird sound publishing, and anybody who still wants to make money off of sound identification guides has got to add some serious value.

When it published Voices of North American Owls in 2005, Cornell added that value.  The booklet accompanying the two CDs ran to 56 pages and described the behavioral context of each vocalization in detail.  The collection as a whole aimed to catalogue the entire repertoire of each species, and did a pretty darn good job of it.  By and large, the recordings of the common vocalizations were of a higher quality than anything you could download off the internet for free, and the recordings of the rare vocalizations simply weren’t available anywhere else.  Add to that the convenience of having all those sounds in one pre-assembled package, and you’ve got an audio publication well worth the $30 price tag.

With the reissue of Borror and Gunn, the convenience of pre-assembly accounts for almost all the added value.  The quality of the song recordings and the historical significance of the work make up the rest of it.  Whether that totals $15 is a judgment I’ll leave to you.

Here’s my personal judgment.  If I were the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, after performing the genuinely valuable service of digitizing this historic collection, I’d generate some goodwill by donating the whole thing to Xeno-Canto, as Bernabe Lopez-Lanus recently did with his colossal DVD Bird Sounds from Southern South America (6100 recordings from over 1000 species).  Barring that, I’d  invest the time and money it would take to really revise and update the project.  Anything less fails to do justice to the original work of Borror and Gunn.

11 comments to Review: Songs of the Warblers

  • K. Cowcill

    I have the tape cassette version of Borror and Gunn, and the songs run at over 2 minutes with different types on each recording. It also has an LP/record-sized ‘booklet’ that contains a great deal of information on each warbler including sonograms. From your review it sounds like they cut out most of the booklet and the songs too.

    There is also a mislabeled recording on my cassette version–one of the warbler songs is not the warbler in question. A few years later I noticed the Peterson Field Guide to Warblers of North America confirmed that too. I can’t remember which one it was now, but I wonder if that was corrected on the new version. I’ll check which one it was (Kentucky Warbler perhaps?).

    I digitized these recordings years ago, but would like a better digitized version than the poorer quality ones I have now. However, I want the full set of songs. Some of them I’ve divided up into their own separate tracks (e.g. Chestnut-sided Warbler divided into 6 song tracks and one call track) after removing the spoken identifier from the beginning. I mix the whole thing up with the other warbler tracks and use them to quiz myself. So CSWA will come up several times and I can’t say, “Not a CSWA…I’ve already heard that one)” to a tricky call or song. If the new version has cut the songs down to 25 seconds, that makes it fairly useless for what I have in mind.

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Very interesting. I didn’t have access to the original while writing this review, so I didn’t realize they’d cut down the track length and eviscerated the booklet. That makes me scratch my head even more.

    Let me know if you discover which track was mislabeled.

  • K. Cowcill

    Yep, will check this weekend as I have to grab some books from storage anyway. I’ll also take a picture of one of the Borror and Gunn book pages to show you the in-depth information it contains, and then send it via email (if that is ok). It is puzzling as to why they cut it out. Maybe they were aiming for a Stokes-like or succinct Peterson’s version??

  • Matt Young

    I’d like to give some background information on the re-released warbler audio guide. It is, simply, a re-release of a guide that people have been requesting in digital form for years. The incentive for the re-release was catalyzed by numerous requests over several years and that no other warbler audio guide was available. The recordings are quite good as Nathan points out, the material is relatively comprehensive, and the value of these vocalizations for the vast majority of birders is timeless! There has been virtually no reduction in material from the first warbler audio guide to the re-released warbler audio guide! The step of providing each sound recording as a separate track was done to facilitate quick access to each example. This may have contributed to the impression some have that all or most examples were shortened. There were 3 necessary edits: removal of an incorrectly identified Rufous-capped Warbler song, deletion of an incorrectly identified Swainson’s Warbler song, and deletion of an incorrectly identified Kentucky Warbler call. Additionally, between the first LP release and this guide was a cassette release, which at that time the long version of the booklet was dropped. The sonograms and the in-depth descriptions of the vocalizations are only available in the first release, which lent itself more readily to such a long booklet. For the individual that appreciates the superior fidelity of recordings selected by experienced authors, the late Donald Borror and William Gunn, and does not have the time or expertise to root through unfiltered website contents to assemble a guide, the re-release of Warblers is, in my opinion, an invaluable set of recordings.

  • K. Cowcill

    P. 542 of the Peterson Guide to Warblers says it appears one of the Hooded Warbler calls is a Kentucky. It seems the new version corrects this error, as well as the Swainson’s.

    Matt–so each bird track, which has four to six ‘types’ with a few examples of each type, has been divided into several tracks now? E.g. If Black-throated Blue Warbler has 6 song types with several calls in each type-which it does-then it would now be six separate tracks?

    If it is edited as you say it is, then I would be like to buy this version–I pushed my Adobe Audition skills to the max trying to clean up the poorly digitized version of my cassette tapes. They sound pretty good on car speakers, but when I use headphones the substandard quality of my editing is a bit distracting.

    Incidentally, the cassette version also had the long booklet too (least mine does–there were a limited number of copies going for very cheap through some fellow in Toronto). It all came packaged in the big LP sized box. Inside were two lonely looking cassette tapes in a big square box and the full booklet (Nathan–I’m sending you a picture of a random page of this booklet to your email).

  • Matt Young

    Hi again,

    You are correct in your interpretation of how each species was split/edited. All the material is there in this digital download, we just tried to provide easier access to each vocalization. That must have been a very limited release– I have the cassette version and it came with the same booklet as this re-release did.

    Matt

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Well, I’m glad to hear that no material was lost in the re-release, and I’m also glad that the mis-identifications were corrected. But I still lament the shortened booklet. It was re-released in PDF form, so it’s not like space should have been an issue.

  • Nathan: interesting subject!

    Matt:

    About the factor time that you mention.

    With the on-line collections results such as these could be on your Ipod or some such in a few minutes, including sonograms and all other available details on the recording.
    Too many noisy recordings? Try this subset : other users have roughly judged the quality for you. Using the navigation possibilities of your sound device it is a piece of cake to navigate such a number of tracks. Time is not a real constraint I’d say.

    But as you of course know, none of the on-line collections have so far chosen to enable the general public to quickly download such “collections-on-demand”. On XC you would still have to hit the diskette icon a few hundred times to have everything on your disk. Which is fine with us, because we do not think of XC as a place of free downloads but as a place to enjoy sounds and learn about birds.

    Now something else. Is it really necessary to download such a “collection-on-demand”? In the US I would assume it is/will be quite possible to access the same results on a smartphone, or on a minilaptop with mobile phone capability both of which you can take into the field or connect to a proper sound device. No need to think in advance of what to take. It’s all there.

    Indeed there may be no substitute for the trained ear of specially gifted professionals in bringing together well balanced and annotated collections of bird sounds. There are splendid examples for sale and I am sure there will always be a market for it. But I for one have become quite picky!

    Willem-Pier

  • Nathan Pieplow

    Here’s a link to the photo of the “random page” of the original booklet that Kevan Cowcill sent me. I think it’s positively brilliant. It’s got spectrograms of every songtype, not to mention word descriptions and discussions that meet all my standards of quality! The only drawback is that it doesn’t seem to mention the calls at all.

    If Cornell had reissued the Songs of the Warblers with this booklet, I would have sung its praises up and down the block. (Hey Cornell — it’s not too late! You could probably have it digitized and downloadable by the end of the week!) :)

  • Matt Young

    I use the XC site often. There are several different user-groups out there for sure……novice, intermediate, expert, and all with widely varying levels of technology capabilities. Additionally, some birders are more into the specific rarity of a vocalization, where others might want a recording with higher fidelity. There’s lots of birder niches today and it’s sometimes easy to lose track of that. I’m guilty of this myself sometimes, especially when I’m digging through the fine differences of Red Crossbill vocalizations. :-)

    Matt

  • K. Cowcill

    Matt…thanks for the info. I just downloaded it. I notice they have added “warbler” to the names (e.g. in the old version it was just “Black-throated Blue”, now it is “Black-throated Blue….Warbler”). The only ‘downside’ to this collection is I keep thinking of all that time I spent slicing up my old digitized version into separate tracks for each bird, as well as copying/pasting more relevant info into the tracks and moving the spoken identifier from the beginning to the end, some of which I will need to find time to do again for this new collection.

    Willem-Pier: The online recordings are invaluable tools, and I have downloaded a number of specific tracks and incorporated some of them into other sound files for teaching/learning purposes. I like buying collections (I collect them :) ) and whenever I’m in a new area I will check the local book/bird/nature store for local collections. When I am returning to an area (e.g. SW US) I can refamiliarize myself with the dialects and species of the birds in that region relatively quickly. Plus over the years I supplement those collections with birds songs I download online, or from my own– rather poorer quality–recordings to make a decent one of a kind resource for a specific region.

    btw, digitizing the full booklet is a good idea. I wish more indepth guides were digitized (e.g. Pete Dunne’s companion book to field guides) for those times when you are traveling/working with only a toughbook/laptop available.