"BirdNote" on NPR is a fascinating, two-minute lesson on birds.
The idea was anything but birdbrained: a radio program bridging listeners to the natural world.
The subjects would be birds. The hook, a bubbly theme song. And the payoff, information and entertainment delivered in snippets just two minutes long.
Chris Peterson, the executive director at Seattle Audubon at the time, was driving over the Cascades to Wenatchee one winter day in 2002 when the idea for the “BirdNote” radio program struck.
“I had been a fan of ‘StarDate’ [that long-running, two-minute University of Texas-produced astronomy radio show], and I thought, ‘Why not do something like that for birds?’ ” she recalls.
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“Birds as a window to nature. The remarkable lives of birds but, really, how we can connect to our landscape a little more deeply and take joy in that.”
Peterson, 61, sits in her Mercer Island home as Steller’s jays, black-capped chickadees and Northern flickers feast on feeders just outside a large kitchen window. A self-described “bulldog” when it comes to advancing a particular whim, she had zero broadcast experience when her idea took wing. But she successfully raised money (the show has an annual budget of $150,000 from grants, foundations and individuals). And she assembled a group of local experts including radio producer John Kessler, musician Nancy Rumble and classically trained actor Frank Corrado.
Now her quirky venture, in its third year, totals more than 600 episodes and is one of the most popular offerings on local NPR affiliate KPLU-FM. “BirdNote” also airs on a handful of other public radio stations across the country: in Juneau, Alaska; Point Reyes, Calif.; Harlingen, Texas; and, later this month in Hartford, Conn.
Quick bird bits
In radio parlance, “BirdNote” is what is known as a module: short bits and occurring regularly. You might be familiar with two other such public radio entities: “Earth & Sky,” a science program that’s been around since 1991, and the Garrison Keillor-narrated “Writer’s Almanac,” which pairs a nugget of history with poetry.
A 120-second-long “BirdNote” never fails to inform, absorb or even transport to the outdoors. And there’s that perky theme song, powerful enough to snap anyone out of all sorts of fowl moods.
A morsel of one “BirdNote” program: the sound of an owl hooting. (The majority of hoots, chirps and wing fluttering you hear in any given episode comes from the vast sound recordings of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library.)
Narrator Corrado, in a deep, expressive voice: “An owl’s gaze is uniquely penetrating. Peer into an owl’s face and there’s something almost human about its large forward-facing eyes. Just how big are those eyes?”
What follows next is a quick lesson on retinal anatomy, the sort of tidbit you could drop as small talk and come off sounding brilliant.
Other episodes have profiled equally ordinary birds — Rufous hummingbird, great blue heron — and extraordinary species such as Tweety and the fictitious Delirian, the latter an April Fool’s Day offering.
Bird courtship ceremonies have been examined. So have piracy rituals. Even what a bird hears in a song. (Bow now to the phenomenal winter wren.)
Chirping with glee
KPLU program director Joey Cohn initially thought a bird-centric program might be too narrow. But NPR listeners and Audubon members, he began to realize, were, well, birds of a feather: curious, environmentally minded, engaged in the world.
Upon its premiere, the program was a hit.
“To be honest, I was surprised by how enthusiastically people responded,” Cohn said. “Lots of e-mails and phone calls, and we really saw the response from people during our fund drive. I would say we got more comments on ‘BirdNote’ than anything else we do.”
Excerpts from some of those e-mails:
• “We listen every day on our way to school.” — Glenn from British Columbia.
• “I have been known to shut off the shower I’m taking in order to hear ‘BirdNote’ on the radio!” — Vicki W.
• “Each morning I drive into a depressing and run-down city and work out of a crumbling, dilapidated office building. … Listening to ‘BirdNote’ cheers me up and reminds me of the beautiful world that exists outside of the wasted remains of human brokenness” — Stephen of Collingswood, N.J., who subscribes to podcasts of the show.
Fans around the world
Bryan Harding, a 41-year-old U.S. Army senior sergeant, grew up south of Billings, Mont., and is now based at Fort McPherson, Ga. He’s been a podcast subscriber since November 2005, when he discovered the program while deployed in Kuwait.
“I had just left Georgia, where I’ve got a bird feeder in my backyard, and now I’m in Kuwait, in the middle of the desert. Sand. It’s ugly. There’s only house sparrows,” Harding, a birder, recalls.
“My reaction was that it was kind of an escape to think of the different birds. It’s just a way to bird without being out in the wild.”
Andy Mabbett, another podcast subscriber, listens to the program while lying in bed or while walking to work — in Birmingham, England. What he finds fascinating, he says, is the chance to learn about North American birds that he has yet to see.
When news can be a steady diet of conflict-oriented stories, “BirdNote,” Peterson says, is a kind of antidote. And day by day it’s able to tout a conservation message: learn about birds; grow to appreciate them; then perhaps, in the long run, you’ll be inspired to protect them and their habitat.
That said, “Bird Note” has spotlighted a non-avian species: cats. As in, please keep them indoors. If not full-time, then at least during breeding season, which runs from March through July.
Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or firstname.lastname@example.org