The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/njpphotography/

May 8, 2009

Clever birds

Filed under: Research — Tags: — Andrew Whitehouse @ 4:01 pm

I’m interested in avian intelligence and how our ideas about it influence how we relate to them.  Yesterday I found this article on the BBC News website on the subject.  In the past scientists thought birds were stupid because they tried to compare their brains to those of mammals.  I wonder if another part of the problem with assessing their intelligence is that this is always measured in relation to human mental capacities.  Maybe if we tried to measure human intelligence in terms of what birds can do, then we might not seem so clever.

June 20, 2008

Travels and telly

Filed under: Research — Tags: , , , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:28 pm

First of all, I’ll be popping up on TV this Sunday on BBC1, being interviewed by Michaela Strachan for Countryfile. This is for a feature on bird song and it was recorded last month near Bristol.

Last week I visited Finland to attend the NightinGala conference in Järvenpää. The event was quite an interesting mixture of the science and music of bird song. I was also able to enjoy listening to birds in Finland, where to me the birds were a mixture of the familiar, the slightly familiar and the new.

Following the recent post about sound identification, I was confronted with some different problems of knowing to those I encountered in America. What I often found was that I was less confident about knowing even bird sounds that seemed familiar because of the different circumstances. Sometimes this was down to the birds singing with noticeably different ‘dialects’, and this was apparent with Chaffinch (as it usually is), Willow Warbler and Whitethroat. In all these cases, the birds were still easy to recognise but sometimes I was caught out. A Yellowhammer singing an abridged version of its song on the edge of a pine forest in Lapland had me confused for a while before I saw it. I found myself immediately thinking it sounded like a Yellowhammer but that it wasn’t quite right, so maybe it could be something else. This ‘something else’ factor was perhaps the main reason why I had trouble identifying sounds I’m otherwise familiar with. A Song Thrush singing deep in the forests of Lapland had me troubled, even though I ‘recognised’ it as having the familiar repeated structure. What bothered me was whether there were other birds in the northern forests that might sing in a similar way. I’m not very familiar with the songs of Fieldfare and Redwing, both of which breed in the area, so I felt that I needed to be sure I wasn’t hearing a variant of one of those species of thrush (and I was later to learn that there are a lot of variants in Redwing song!). In all these cases I was eventually able to be pretty confident of what bird was making the sound, but the problem was that I was unfamiliar with the context. In Britain, I can be much more certain of what I’m hearing because I’m also familiar with the other sounds I’m likely to hear in most places. In Finland I’m aware that there are birds that make sounds I don’t know, and maybe some of them sound like birds that I think know. What all this suggests is that ‘knowing’ a sound is made by a particular kind of bird is a very contingent knowing. Knowing a Song Thrush in your neighbourhood is one kind of knowing, but knowing it everywhere is another.

If I’d have stayed in Finland a little bit longer, I might have had the opportunity to travel over to the Russian border to hear the extraordinary sound of Europe’s first Swinhoe’s Snipe.

April 11, 2008

Project update

Filed under: Research — Tags: , , , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 9:38 am

There haven’t been too many updates to the blog lately so I thought I’d mention a few things I’ve been up to.

Media

Some of you may have noticed my name cropping up in one or two publications lately. The May issue of BBC Wildlife features an article by me on responses to bird sounds, including a few excerpts from the stories people have sent me. I was also featured in last weekend’s edition of the Sunday Telegraph, including a few short notes on responses to particular birds that I, mostly, wrote. A lot of the current media interest seems to stem from the popularity of bird song radio and there may be a few other ‘media appearances’ in the near future, which I’ll keep you up to date on.

Writing and presentations

I’m currently working on an academic paper, the first to come from this project, which is drawn primarily from the hundreds of stories, experiences and thoughts sent to me through this website. I’ll be presenting versions of this paper on a couple of occasions in the near future. On Tuesday 22nd April I’ll be giving the departmental seminar in anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ll also be presenting at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference at Columbia University, New York City on Saturday 24th May in the session ‘Mundane Ideals’. Whilst I’m in America I’ll also be meeting with bird sound researchers at Cornell and Indiana, as well as hopefully listening to a few interesting birds.

Teaching and learning bird sound identification

One of the main aspects of the research is to look into how people make distinctions between the sounds of birds and how they come to put names to what they’re hearing. As well as considering my own ways of doing this, I’m going to be teaching people bird sound identification during the spring. If you live in the Aberdeen area and are interested in participating then feel free to get in touch. I’ll be saying more about what I’m learning and hoping to learn through this process over the coming weeks and months.

Contributions

Contributions to the project are still more than welcome. You can send your experiences to me via the ‘Contribute’ page. I’m conscious that I haven’t used any of these contributions in the blog and so I’ll be rectifying that over the coming weeks. Enormous thanks again to everyone who has sent their experiences in.

February 4, 2008

Caerlaverock

Filed under: Research — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 5:12 pm

I spent the final weekend of January on a field trip run by the Wildlife Sound Recording Society at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve at Caerlaverock in Dumfriesshire. I stayed in the hostel at the reserve itself and so was able to get out at all times of the day to make recordings. Recording wasn’t always easy because there were high winds on Friday and Saturday, which made it difficult to get a clean recording. Sunday and Monday morning were better, and I was also aided in my efforts by my growing familiarity with the site and the daily rhythms of the birds. The weekend also helped me to learn more about the recording equipment I was using: a Fostex FR2-LE recorder and a Sennheiser ME66 microphone. In particular, I got used to setting the gain to an approporiate level – high enough to pick up the detail but not so high as to create distortion and increase noise. I also became accustomed to listening through headphones, which is useful for monitoring what’s being recorded.

Caerlaverock is a noisy place in January, with large numbers of wildfowl and waders using the area. By the end of the weekend I’d decided that the best approach was to set the recording equipment up in a small hide and let it run, capturing the various sounds of the marshes. The best time of day to record was just before sunrise until just after, when the birds were waking up but before the human visitors had arrived. I tried this on Sunday, but the wind was a bit strong and the flocks of geese were distant. On Monday I got things right, recording from a different hide that was out of the wind and with the geese coming into land just fifty or so metres away.

One of the contentions of the project is that bird sounds are evocative of time, place and season and through these recordings I’d like to evoke something of that weekend at Caerlaverock. Of course most people reading this won’t have been to the reserve but perhaps the sounds will still draw out some recollections of other places for you.

The first recordings were those I made on the Monday morning. It was still dark at first and few birds could be discerned by sight. This is the recording I added to my previous post and on it you can hear oystercatchers, teal, mallard, curlew and wigeon. I think there’s a common snipe in there too. There are only a small number of barnacle geese at this stage of the morning.

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After about twenty minutes, the first flocks of barnacle geese start to arrive in from the east and can be dimly seen against the slowly brightening sky. Here you can hear two flocks arriving in, and more followed a few minutes later.

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Eventually there are several thousand geese settled within a short distance. Late risers appear, including a flock of rooks and a few whooper swans bugling away, their calls almost drowned out amongst the geese.

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The whooper swans are easier to hear on this recording, which was made at around 11am on the Sunday. They gather on one of the pools every morning where they’re fed grain by the reserve staff.

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You can hear them here too, but there’s less of their excitable clamour and you can also pick out the soft, insistent notes of teal and a few mallards. This was recorded on Saturday morning, when the wind was still quite gusty. You may notice occasional buffeting on the recording.

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Nearby, lots of smaller birds gather in the trees and hedgerows around the visitor centre, many of them feeding on the grain put out for the wildfowl. You can hear blue tit, robin, blackbird, wren and yellowhammer with the sounds of the swans in the background reminding you that you’re close to water.

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As the day draws on, the barnacle geese are more settled and are busy feeding on grass. On this recording you can hear a flock feeding. Some birds are giving loud yapping calls but there’s a steady murmur of quieter ‘conversational calls’ arising from the flock.

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And, although it’s still January, the mild weather encourages a few birds to start singing. This chaffinch sounds like it’s just practicing in readiness for the spring (recorded with Remembird).

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So what do these sounds evoke and how do they achieve this? For me of course they take me right back to last weekend and being there making the recordings. They also stir up a few memories, usually a bit less precise, of other places where I’ve heard the same calls. I’m also reminded of other occasions when I was up before dawn and heard the birds waking around me. The power of the sounds always seems to be enhanced by the darkness, when the movements of the birds, and their very presence can only be traced by ear.

Of course here we’re listening to recordings and not real birds. What you’re hearing is not quite like being there and listening yourself, not least because the recordings are in mono and not in stereo. But I think that recordings of sound are still more evocative than images (either still or moving). To me at least, a reasonable sound recording comes much closer to the experience of hearing than a photograph does to seeing. On listening to a recording, I can place myself into that situation. With a picture I feel far more detached from what I’m viewing, even if I took the photograph myself.

For the wildlife sound recordist, the aim is often to produce a recording that approximates to a real experience of listening. There’s also a desire to keep out ‘extraneous’ sounds, particularly human or mechanical noises such as traffic or planes. There were no problems with traffic at Caerlaverock but planes were almost continually flying over and you may have heard some on the above recordings. This recording here perhaps has the noisiest plane, although how loudly you can hear it will depend on what you’re using to playback.

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Ordinarily I don’t notice the sound of planes but making recordings certainly brings them to one’s attention. I could hear the planes rather loudly through the headphones at the time and on playing back the recordings they can still seem rather intrusive. This reminds me that a recorder and microphone doesn’t hear in quite the same way that we do. When we hear, we can filter out some sounds and focus in on others. This is a skill that we learn and it means that if we’re listening for birds that’s mostly what we hear and not those extraneous noises that the microphone picks up on. Some recorders have built in filters for low frequency sounds such as traffic and the use of sound editing software enables the recording to be filtered afterwards. But sophisticated though these are, they are unable to reproduce the subtleties and intelligence of listening that humans, and presumably other animals, acquire through their lives.

Thanks to the Wildlife Sound Recording Society and Caerlaverock WWT for a wonderful weekend.

The University of Aberdeen