From croaks to chirps

  • Cover of "Sounds of North American Frogs"

  • Illustration of a frog

  I used to spend a lot of time chasing frogs. It would be easier to say that I quit doing this at age 12, like the other kids, but the truth is a little harder to explain. I would show up at work - I got paid for this - with a long-handled net and a fistful of plastic bags, and I'd spend most of my days looking for frogs, all in the name of serious science.

So I'm predisposed to like a recent re-release on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Sounds of North American Frogs: The Biological Significance of Voice in Frogs. This 1958 recording includes about 90 frog calls from around the United States and Mexico, recorded, and narrated in deadpan fashion, by field biologist Charles Bogert.

Even for those with bad memories of high school biology, this recording is a gem. Forty years after these sounds were collected, the CD and its extensive liner notes are still an excellent guide to night noises, whether you're in southern Arizona during monsoon season or camped by a pond in the Pacific Northwest. Parts of the recording are, unfortunately, of only historical interest, since many of the species are now in steep decline.

It's also a testament to the work of Folkways, founded in 1948, which struggled to preserve the threatened and endangered sounds of the musical world. Folkways' "Science Series' expanded the mission to collect the sounds of dolphins, junkyards and even a sports-car race. Folkways was never a commercial success; its collection is kept alive by the Smithsonian Institution, which acquired Folkways' catalog of over 30,000 recordings in 1987.

Like most of Folkways' work, this recording of frogs wasn't intended to be a bestseller. Instead, its goal is to let you hear something unfamiliar - or so familiar that you'd never think about it otherwise. Unless, of course, it were to disappear.

*Michelle Nijhuis