DOUGLAS ROBINSON’S BRAIN IS WIRED FOR BIRDSONG. He discovered his uncanny talent — a seemingly genetic ability to recognize and remember hundreds of songs and notes — growing up in the Ozarks of southern Illinois, where he made his first ornithological field notes at age 10. This gift lets him survey and study even the most elusive avian species in the world. Before heading to Barro Colorado Island, he spent six months tramping through the jungles of central Panama to learn the sounds of the local species.
Finding birds solely by sight, he says, is all but impossible in the tangled foliage of tropical rainforests. Once he hears a song, he never forgets it. As his Ph.D. student Randy Moore explains: “Doug has some kind of filing system in his brain that lets him readily access bird vocalizations even when he hasn’t heard them in years. They’re always right at his cerebral fingertips.”