An anthropologist listens to birds
Paper given at the symposium Ruffled Feathers: birds, conservation and culture, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge 12th November 2007
This talk is entitled 'An anthropologist listens to birds' but it could equally well be called 'A birder tries to be an anthropologist'. I was a birder long before I ever became an anthropologist, but I've often been able to combine these two interests, previously by doing research into the conservation of birds in Islay in the west of Scotland and now with a two-year research project together with Tim Ingold called 'Listening to birds: an anthropological approach to bird sounds'. In this talk I'll say a bit about this project and will try to explain how an anthropologist, that is somebody who studies people, the things they do and the ways they think and relate to the world, might approach bird sounds. Although as a birder I have a kind of practical knowledge of bird sounds, it's a subject that I'm rapidly finding I know very little about, so any ideas, comments or corrections are most welcome.
The project is concerned broadly with the subject of hearing and poses the question of what happens when people hear a bird. How do people respond and what sort of effects does the experience of hearing have? This is preceded by the question of how people come to hear birds in the first place. People don't just hear the vibrations that reach their ears, they notice some of these sounds and ignore others. This process of selection and how it is acquired is a starting point to the project.
Once people are hearing birds, I'm interested in how they come to recognise different kinds of sounds made by different kinds of birds. In this sense, I'm interested in a 'skilled hearing' rather similar to a recent collection edited by Cristina Grasseni about 'skilled vision', in which the ways that vision was developed socially were investigated in a variety of settings. Some people become skilled at distinguishing different sounds and identifying birds through their sounds. I'm interested in understanding the social basis for this acquisition of skill. What follows from this is an interest in what people do with the sounds they hear. For some people, a lot of birders for example, identification is an endpoint in itself. But for others, people like scientists, musicians, writers and artists, the sounds of birds become meaningful and influential in other ways. Of course for many of us the sounds of birds become evocative, beautiful and startling for a whole variety of reasons - such as associations with different seasons, places, times, moods and memories. Through the 'Listening to birds' project I intend to examine some of these processes through which bird sounds become incorporated into people's lives.
So this is a study of what people hear, how they distinguish the sounds they hear and what they do with that experience. It is as much a study of hearing as it is of bird sounds. I would contend that we develop skilled hearing through what the ecological psychologist James Gibson called 'an education of attention'. That is, through our interaction with other people and with our environment we come to learn certain particular ways of attending to different features of our world, of focusing in on particular aspects. Some people focus on birds and attend to them by sight or by hearing. I know from my experiences of birders that some attend more to sound than others. Some people are 'good at their calls'. These birders often seem to be in the minority, and learning bird sounds is frequently considered to be a much harder thing to do than learning to recognise birds by sight. Bird sounds are complicated and seem to be particularly tricky to remember, which perhaps explains the plethora of mnemonics that, at least in some cases, facilitate this e.g. 'a little bit of bread and no cheese' reminds us of a yellowhammer song. The difficulty of explaining bird sounds in a way that can be readily learnt is a situation exemplified in many identification guides to birds in which the visual recognition of birds is dealt with in remarkable clarity and detail but the identification of bird sounds isn't covered very thoroughly except through sometimes hard to comprehend linguistic descriptions or translations of sounds that can hard to relate to any real sounds made by a bird.
This emphasis placed on learning birds by sight rather than by sound brings us to the relationship between hearing and seeing. Although the project is about hearing and sound, it seems to me to be highly necessary to think about vision too. In much of the theoretical literature on the senses, vision emerges as distinct. It is vision that the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty said 'put the world at a distance'. To see is at once to be distant and detached. Distance is indeed necessary to seeing properly. Hearing is likened more to the proximity senses of touch, taste and smell and can even be described as a specialised form of touch that involves the ear sensing vibrations in the air. And yet it is a sense that can also operate at a distance and can penetrate where the visible cannot. I think it's this ambiguity, this tension between distance and proximity that makes hearing a particularly fascinating sense.
The relationship that hearing has with seeing is thrown into sharp relief when we consider the identification of bird sounds. It is often recommended that a good way to learn a bird sound is to follow up any unfamiliar sounds and see the bird making it. Because it's assumed that the person will already know the bird by sight, they will associate the sound with seeing the bird and the process of looking for the source of the sound helps to make the sound more memorable. We also identify sounds in part from the context, and this context is often established through visual cues: the habitat, the location etc.
Not only is vision part of contextualising hearing, it is also a part of the process of hearing itself. As the deaf musician Evelyn Glennie puts it in an essay about hearing:
"We can... see items move and vibrate. If I see a drum head or cymbal vibrate or even see the leaves of a tree moving in the wind then subconsciously my brain creates a corresponding sound." (Evelyn Glennie, Hearing Essay http://www.evelyn.co.uk/live/hearing_essay.htm)
Just as one might see the skin of a drum make a sound, so one can see a bird sing or call and that physical action becomes an aspect of the process of listening, identifying and responding to what we hear.
Vision is also prominent in scientific studies of bird sounds and this arises through certain technological developments. It's rather revealing that in 'Bird Song', his history of the development of avian bioacoustics, Don Stap begins his study not in a wood or wetland listening to real birds but in the MacAulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. It is here in these rooms filled with thousands upon thousands of recordings of birds and other animals that the modern scientific understanding of bird sounds has emerged. This role of technology in how people hear and understand bird sounds is something I find particularly interesting and will be a major focus in the project.
Almost all discussions of avian bioacoustics highlight the significance of two technological developments during the 20th century. The first was the development of portable recording devices, enabling researchers to get high quality recordings of bird sounds almost anywhere they wanted. The second was the development, around the middle of the century, of the sonogram. This was originally designed as a way to visualise human speech but it caused a revolution in the understanding bird sounds. No longer did scientists have to rely on what their ears told them. Sonagrams plot frequency against time and in so doing provide a visual representation of the pattern of sound is it develops. This enabled scientists to see the differences in ways that birds sing. This perception of difference was much more easily achieved by viewing this rather abstract graph at one's leisure than listening to the complex bursts of sound as they were produced by birds. As the bird sound biologist Donald Kroodsma describes the importance of sonograms in the introduction to his book The Singing Life of Birds:
"'You must have exceptional ears,' people often say to me as they lament how tone-deaf their ears must be in comparison. 'No,' I reply, 'they're actually pretty pathetic, and I have no musical ability whatsoever. But, like most of us, I have well trained eyes, and it is with my eyes that I hear.'" (Kroodsma 2005:1-2)
So technology has changed the way that scientists hear bird sounds, but with developments in digital recording and software making recording and analysing bird sounds much easier and cheaper to do for the amateur, the hearing of bird sounds, or at least their recording, is becoming more prominent amongst birders and other interested amateurs.
And yet these recorders and programmers for analysis are to bird sounds what cameras are to bird sights. Where are the aural equivalents of the binoculars and telescopes that people use so successfully to provide a better view of birds? Technologies for enhancing our hearing of birds have never become popular. We only need to aid our hearing if our hearing is unusually bad and many birders seem to be quite content to hardly be able to hear birds at all. As yet I have no explanation for this lack of interest in the development of technologies to aid hearing, but in this case the act of hearing, like other proximity senses but unlike seeing is, for most people, not technologised.
But technology, as I've mentioned is integral to avian bioacoustics and seeing what is heard, or more accurately recorded, has had huge implicatioins for how this field has developed. But I'm interested in the field of bioacoustics for other reasons. As an anthropologist reading scientific studies of bird soudns, as I've recently been doing, I'm immediately struck by a number of similar themes that arise in both disciplines. Through the close study of the variations in song within species of bird, something only possible through the use of sonograms, scientists are able to address questions about learning. In this there are close parallels with anthropology and indeed scientists often talk of 'cultural learning' in birds in much the same way as anthropologists use the concept for people. The differences that scientists quite literally see in bird sounds within a species require an explanation, much as the differences in thought and behaviour between people elicits an explanation from anthropologists. Here, differences within a species are attributed to the ability of some species of bird, but not all, to learn their songs from neighbouring birds. Thus different populations of the same species develop distinctive dialects, to borrow another term from the human sciences.
So avian bioacoustics is concerned, to a degree that is perhaps rare within biology, with distinguishing between what is learnt and what is innate, what is cultural and what is natural. In this, they share a similar array of questions as have preoccupied anthropologists and other social and cognitive scientists. Thus I think there could be a possibility for productive cross-fertilisation of ideas between the disciplines. For example, might the ways that anthropologists have addressed learning be useful for studying how birds learn? Could recent developments in anthropological theory that attempt to get past the old dualisms of the innate and learnt, natural and cultural, give on to different ways of thinking about bird sounds?
So here I'm interested in how scientists use bird sounds and how they understand the differences between them. But I'm interested in what scientists then do with these differences and how they might compare with anthropological understandings of difference and learning. Scientists draw on these differences within species to try to understand the taxonomic relations between species. An interesting example of this, and one that I hope to study further, concerns the taxonomy of crossbills. The analysis of bird sounds has been critical in this, with populations of crossbills living in the same area being shown to give different calls to each other. Are these crossbills different species, even though they might look very similar to one another? My interest is not so much in answering this question as a biologist would, fascinating though it is, but in trying to understand the way that bird sounds are thought about by scientists, that is as isolating or differentiating mechanisms that reveal and establish differences that are theorised as being important to the birds themselves.
But it's not just scientists who are concerned with bird sounds. Most of us hear birds, although some of us may notice their sounds and pay more attention to them than others do. When I mention my project to colleagues, most of whom don't claim any particular interest in birds, they're sometimes surprised and wonder if anybody other than a few specialists notices bird sounds. But then they often return to me to comment on a bird sound they've heard that has affected them in some way. As often as not they refer to being woken up by noisy herring gulls, a rather common experience in Aberdeen.
Artists, as we'll hear, and musicians also use bird sounds in a variety of ways. Musicians write lyrics about bird sounds, they include recordings of birds in their music and they compose music that replicates bird song. A particularly interesting example of how a musician uses bird sounds comes from one of my favourite artists, Juana Molina. She says,
"When I started to write the songs for this record... a new element that may have been hidden for a long time appeared: the randomness of the combination of sounds in nature. Each bird has a particular singing; nevertheless this singing is always different. It is not a pattern; it's a drawing, a sound and a mode, only a few elements that each bird combines in a new way each time. In the same way, sometimes I chose to sing a melodic drawing I developed for the song." (Juana Molina http://www.myspace.com/juanamolina)
Here Molina is being influenced by the sound of birds and the way that a bird combines the elements of its singing, in much the same way that she might be influenced by another musician. She doesn't necessarily attempt to imitate the bird, although she sometimes includes recordings in her songs, but is drawing on bird music to think about the way she composes her own music.
But as well as looking into how musicians, artists and scientists respond to bird sounds, I'll be looking more generally at the processes of hearing and learning bird sounds and how they become incorporated into people's lives. And this is something that anybody can contribute to. Very soon there will be a website for the project, which will have a page where people can write about their experiences of bird sound. I'll also be writing an online diary of my own experiences and thoughts. One of the main ways I'll be investigating how people perceive and identify sounds is through active teaching and learning. I'll be attempting to teach people to identify sounds and in doing this will concentrate on how they come to notice and remember the differences that they hear. The role of group learning, vision and mnemonic techniques will be integral to this. I'm also going to be learning new bird sounds, particularly during periods away from Britain but also locally, for example by learning to distinguish different crossbill calls. In this, the role of sonograms in highlighting small differences in sound is critical - it's hoped that through seeing the differences in the sonogram, differences can be heard in the sound.
I think it's a particularly good time to be studying bird sounds and how people hear them. As I mentioned earlier, recording equipment is becoming more portable, cheaper and easier to use. I now have a portable sound recorder that fits onto my binoculars! This means that recording bird sounds is becoming more popular and more attention is being paid to sound as a result. A recent book called The Sound Approach to Birding is the first book aimed at amateurs that really explains the role of recording and sonograms in learning to hear bird sounds. The effects that this book has had on the profile of hearing birds and how people listen to them has been significant and is likely to grow. But as the world becomes ever more noisy and filled with human and mechanical sounds, I think listening to birds provides us with a powerful sense of stability and is a reminder that our world is home to many other beings with a profound wish to be heard.