Interview: Don Stap (Part 1)

Don Stap has written two books, A Parrot Without A Name and Birdsong, as well as numerous

articles for publications such as Audubon, National Wildlife, The Chicago Tribune, and The New

York Times (to name a few). He also writes poetry and has published a collection of poems entitled Letter at the End of Winter. He is a Professor of English at the University of Central Florida, where he has taught since 1985. Stap’s writing explains the science of ornithology in such a clear, enthusiastic, and interesting way that any reader, scientist or not, can be drawn into the world of avian research. I thank Professor Stap for his time in allowing me to interview him.  

 

1.     How did you become involved in researching bioacoustics for Birdsong, particularly in shadowing Donald Kroodsma?

 

    It was Greg Budney that suggested I talk to Don Kroodsma. I met Greg (Curator of the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology), sadly enough, at Ted Parker’s memorial service in Washington. D.C., following Ted’s death in a plane crash in Ecuador. We had both gotten to know Ted about the same time, and Ted had been very important to both of us. I think we both felt he had changed our lives. It was a conversation with Ted years earlier that led me eventually to write A Parrot Without a Name.

    We got to talking about how we’d both spent time with Ted in Peru, and most of the time he was hauling around his Nagra tape recorder recording birds. One thing led to another, and I thought I should write an article about the importance of recording bird vocalizations. In a way I thought of doing this in honor of Ted. And so I proposed this to Audubon magazine—this would have been about 1993 or 1994—and they gave me the assignment. I spent time with Greg out West as he did some recording, and then I met Don Kroodsma on Martha’s Vineyard where he went to record black-capped chickadees, which sang a different song there than they did everywhere else in the U.S. But I might never have come across Kroodsma if Greg hadn’t said to me, “You have to meet Don Kroodsma. He’s the best.”

    I was amazed at how much Kroodsma knew about bird vocalizations, and what an interesting guy he was. As I came to discover, he was obsessed with his work. The same was true of John O’Neill and Ted Parker: They were obsessed with neotropical avifauna and were among the best in their field. People like that are always interesting subjects to write about, so after I met Kroodsma I began thinking about a book on birdsong with Don as the central figure. After that, I found as much time as I could to tag along with him on recording trips.

   

 

2. Did you accompany Kroodsma, O'Neill, and Parker in the field specifically to research for writing your books Birdsong and A Parrot Without A Name? If not, what were you doing accompanying them (were you part of the ornithological research yourself?)

 

    Yes, I tagged along with O’Neill, Parker, Kroodsma, and Budney specifically for the purpose of writing a book. In each case— early on before I got too involved—I wrote a proposal and my agent got me a contract with a publisher. I don’t think I could have afforded all the travel if I hadn’t had some advance money from a publisher!

    I was never in any way part of the research they were doing. I have absolutely no training in biology at all. I’m a writer with an interest in birds and the people who study them. Had I been involved in the work, I’m not sure I could have made the observations I did that figured into what I wrote. You need to stand back and observe, watch how people do things, and listen to what they say, all of which, of course, you jot down in a notebook. Not having any training in science has its drawbacks certainly, but it also gave me a fresh perspective on things. I was always learning something new that the biologists took for granted.

 

3.     Do you have any plans to write another book? If so, on what topic?

 

    Another book? I do, but I’m a terribly slow writer for reasons I don’t entirely understand. What I’ve been reading about and writing about—in articles for magazines—the past few years has been shorebirds. Again I’ve come across some remarkable people who know a great deal about shorebirds and are a pleasure to be with. So I’m gathering material for a book on shorebirds, but it’s slow-going and I have no idea when I might get to actually writing it. My teaching position at the University of Central Florida (I teach writing courses) takes a lot of time and energy, and that is one of the things that slows me up.

    But I love to watch shorebirds, in particular the peeps and other small sandpipers. I can spend hours sitting in one place and never lose interest as I watch them work their way across a mudflat as they feed. And I’m especially moved by the remarkable synchronized flying they do. It seems magical.

 

Part 2 will be posted tomorrow

2010-08-06T01:50:38+00:00