Listening to Birds

Listening to Birds

This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and ran from 2007-2009


What happens when we hear a bird? This is the question at the heart of this project and over the next two years we will be listening to birds with others and finding out how bird sounds become a part of people's lives. The project has been generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is based in the Department of Anthropology at Aberdeen.

We want to investigate how people listen to birds because we're fascinated by two subjects. First, we are interested in the relationships between humans and birds and the role that sound plays in this. We wish to understand how bird sounds become important and meaningful to people, for example as being evocative of time, place or season. Second, we want to explore hearing and to consider how people become skilled at differentiating what they hear. How do people learn the skills of listening to, and identifying, bird sounds? And in the first place, how do people come to attend to bird sounds, rather than ignoring them? Through addressing these questions we aim to explore the relationship between vision and hearing, something critical to understanding what happens when we hear a bird. For example, we intend to consider how hearing a bird might be different to seeing it. How does seeing influence what we hear and how we hear it? What is the relationship between a bird as an object and the sounds that it makes?

The project also aims to show how important birds are to people in many different ways. Birds are ubiquitous and even in cities the sound of birds rises above the noise of traffic and industry. Hearing birds is an experience that people almost everywhere can and do have. Some birds are much more easily heard than seen and birds are so diverse and their identification, both by sight and sound, so complex that they represent an ideal case for a study of perception and classification in an immense variety of situations.

So over the next two years, we'll be examining all of these themes through various kinds of anthropological research. To gain an understanding of how people develop skilled hearing we're investigating how people learn bird sounds. We'll teach bird sound identification to individual volunteers around Aberdeen, with a particular focus on the role of vision and technology in learning sounds. We also hope to learn a lot about how to recognise bird sounds ourselves, through research in both Britain and Brazil.

We shall aslo explore how bird sounds become important and meaningful, revealing, evocative and significant to different groups and how different interests influence the ways that bird sounds are perceived and identified. We'll be investigating how people, both in northeast Scotland and elsewhere, incorporate bird sounds into their lives. Participants will be interviewed and invited to keep bird sound diaries noting their interactions and feelings. Other plans include a study of interactions between domestic aviary birds and their keepers, focusing on how personal relationships develop between birds and people through sound, and an exploration of how composers and musicians incorporate and are influenced by bird vocalisations. Finally, we're interested in how scientists recognise, record and analyse bird sounds and their taxonomic and ethological significance.

During the two years of the project, a blog will keep you up to date with news, thoughts and findings and we're also keen for people, wherever they are in the world, to tell us about their experiences of listening to birds. You can contribute directly through the website or contact us by email or telephone. We look forward to hearing from you and to hearing birds with you.

Bird Sounds Blog

An anthropological approach to bird sounds


The Waterfall Trail

30 July 2009

Andrew Whitehouse @ 10:12 pm

Last year I spent two wonderful months at the Reserva Ecológica de Guapiaçu in southeast Brazil.  While I was there I was able to make numerous recordings of birds and from these recordings I’ve put together a sound-guide to one of the most popular trails on the reserve: the Waterfall Trail.  Here are the recordings together with my commentary.  Each track covers a section of the trail and includes birds that one might hear along each.

If you’ve any comments I’d be very interested to hear them, particularly if you’re a Regua visitor and have an opportunity to walk the trail. Did you find that listening to the sound guide helped you to listen to the birds along the trail and to recognise what you were hearing?


Listening to birds in Australia | Seagulls | Clever birds | Nightingales

Listening to birds in Australia

15 May 2009

Andrew Whitehouse @ 5:01 pm

I’ve been very interested to hear about the experiences of changing bird sounds described by people moving between different parts of the world. Some of the most striking examples have come from people moving between the UK and Australia, countries with very different birds.

This very striking example is from Eugen Beer:

We have been here in Sydney, Australia for just over six months and soon discovered that, to the British ear, the Australian birdsong is really quite disruptive. We have heard of people emigrating BACK to the UK because of the ‘ugly’ birdsong here. In a nutshell I would describe the sub-conscious effect of ‘birdsong’ here as being to raise people’s tension. It is a series of screeches or other worldly sounds. In the UK you wake to the blackbird, sparrow, or if you are lucky – thrush. Gentle, harmonious songs that usher in the day to come. Here the birds literally crash into your consciousness… I honestly believe that if you hooked somebody up and exposed them to British birdsong and then Sydney birdsong you would see the latter send the pulse racing.

Gill Rice writes:

In 1968 I emigrated to Australia (I was 19 at the time). I had been brought up on a farm in Somerset, and there was an old apple orchard outside of my bedroom window. The dawn chorus was so very special to me, that when I arrived in Australia I missed the sound terribly. My mother made a tape of the chorus for me and sent it to me to play so I did not feel so home sick!

A correspondent living in Sydney comments:

I lived in the UK for my first 40 years. I now live in Sydney, Australia. I used to love the sound of English birdsong – particularly blackbirds. I still associate the sound with English Spring and Summer days. It was one of the few things I really missed when I arrived here among the larger squarkier birds of Sydney… Over the last year I have noticed that I now have a growing similar affection for the sound of Australian Magpies. Their warbling song is very distinctive and quite unlike any other bird I’ve heard. To start with it was a curiosity and, having been whacked on the back of the head by an aggressive nesting magpie (and they are BIG), I regarded them with suspicion! But now, after many sunny days spent with a sound track from the magpies I realise that they have virtually supplanted blackbirds in my affections. I now hear more in the song – it *feels* as if the magpies have become more musically inventive; in reality I think I have become more attuned to their music and the variations in their song.

Simon Eassom from Melbourne was also fascinated by Australian birds:

My family moved to Australia from a county village in England 2 years ago. We loved the native birds in our garden in the UK and thought we’d miss them. But, we’re now in a 1.5 acre bush idyll in the suburban fringes of Melbourne and marvel everyday at the bird life. We have almost resident cockatoos, rosellas, lorakeets, galahs, parrots, and kookaburras that come to us from 5.30am for breakfast and stay through to 7.30pm after supper. We spend more on bird feed than we do on our two dogs (including feeding the kookaburra with raw meat which we don’t even grant the dogs). Anyway, I find their vocalisations much more interesting than I ever found birdsong in the UK. The screeching and squarking of the cockatoos is fascinating, as is the call of the kookaburra. I can’t resist imitating them and trying to communicate. I drive my family nuts with my kookaburra recitals. However, and here’s the main point of interest I guess, the birds that fascinate me most are the magpies and butcher birds. They are nasty bullies and can be quite aggressive and vicious towards people. But, they communicate in the most fascinating sounds. They can sound like a fax machine at one moment and on old “trim” phone at another. Yet it’s clear that the changing tones and pitch are a vocabulary. Their song is almost digital in nature. It isn’t a twittering sound or the parrot-family sound of the cockatoos etc. Neither is it a whistle. It’s quite extraordinary. More than any other bird I’ve listened to or observed, the magpies make me feel like wanting to talk to them despite my general disdain for them as visitors to our garden. They are the earliest bird to begin singing in the morning and probably the most loquacious. The young have a very different pitch to the adults and the interactions make it much easier to pick the magpies out from amongst the crowd. In the UK there would be a general cacophony of bird song every morning with it being very difficult to distinguish individual species, yet alone individual birds. Here, that’s all changed and I’ve become an avid bird listener.

Here are some experiences of Australians who have moved to the UK, the first from Adam Schembri in London:

As an Australian living in London, bird song contributes strongly to my sense of place. I have recordings of some Australian birds in my iTunes collection that I listen to sometimes to remind me of home: cockatoos, whipbirds, currawongs and bellbirds are particularly evocative for me. I always say to my partner that I want to retire in a house where I can hear bellbirds. But I also have some British birds that I like in my collection, particularly the blackbird and the stonechat. I love the fact that the blackbird’s call is often in the background in many different parts of the UK, so I associate it strongly with living here, and have gotten quite disoriented in Melbourne in Australia where blackbirds also live.

This particularly evocative contribution is from Lou Horton from Devon:

Birdsong becomes so much a part of the aural environment it becomes nearly invisible – until it changes. I came to the UK as a teenager having grown up in Australia. Two things struck me straight away: both the stars and the birds were wrong. More than anything else, these two things made me feel alien.

Nearly thirty years later I came across Australian birdsong on the internet. A short burst of currawong song brought back an intense feeling of being a child again in Sydney. I could almost smell the air and feel the texture of my primary school uniform. It’s like a trigger to a sense of being, rather than a memory of doing.


11 May 2009

Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:47 pm

Here in Aberdeen you’re never far away from a gull and its evocative call.  Here are some thoughts about ‘seagulls’ of one sort or another.

From Sharron in Fife:

Seagulls can be a pain but I love it when there’s a fight between a gull and a crow. I’ve managed to catch this on camera a few times, always first alerted by the racket.

Rebecca Sargent comments:

I love to hear the birds, although the herring gulls (of which there are plenty of in Hastings) can be a bit tiresome sometimes!

Cate Butler writes:

Herring gulls always used to put me in mind of Cornish sea villages but now I live in Bath/Bristol they are very commonplace.

From Bob Woldie in Woking:

I have visited the coast countless times since I was a small boy (I’m 45 now) and, unlike some people, I enjoy the sound of sea gulls. Oddly though, whenever I hear a sea gull I am first reminded of the only occasion when I did not enjoy the sound. That happened about 25 years ago when I was kept awake all night by the incessant cries of the gulls around Looe in Cornwall.

Peter Soar from Cambridge writes:

Earlier this year I went deaf, so birdsong is a memory. First memory – as a boy of 5 or 6 arriving on holiday at Sidmouth, Devon where we spent most of our summer holidays. The sound of the gulls was the first sound of the holiday, after that of the steam engine which hauled our train. Very evocative; I suppose you count gulls’ cries as birdsong.

From David Macefield in Thames Ditton:

The cry of a herring gull also takes me to the seaside. Why is that they never seem to make much sound when inland?

Jack Matthias from Nainamo, British Columbia writes:

The sound of glaucous-winged seagulls resident on the west coast of Canada (in British Columbia) is a sound I grew up with near the shore in Vancouver. Hearing it now brings a peace to my soul, knowing I have finally returned to this part of the world. The sound was particularly associated with travel on the British Columbia ferries in earlier days when garbage was dumped overboard. The gulls, being scavengers, would set up a great hue and cry as they fought over the spoils.

A writer from Exeter comments:

I love the sound of herring gulls. I grew up in a seaside town on the south Devon coast so was used to the sound of hundreds of noisy squawking herring gulls, especially during the summer months when they are nesting and scavenging for food. I moved up north for a good few years far away from the coast and used to get terribly homesick. During my trips back to my home town to visit family, the sound of the herring gulls always struck me and filled me with joy because I new I was back home!

From a writer in Glasgow:

I suspect lots of people may, like me, smell a phantom whiff of seaweed and a memory of a childhood holiday when they hear a gull cry, even if they’re in the heart of the city miles from the shore.

From George McCissock in North Queensferry:

I used to associate the herring gull’s cry with summer holidays, as we always went to the coast for our holidays, and this was before the time that gulls started to forage far inland for food. I remember the glorious feeling of waking to seagulls and realising I really was on holiday, and then my parents grumbling over breakfast about how early the gulls had woken them!

From Lynda Read:

Memories from my childhood of annual holidays in Devon and Cornwall, they seemed so audacious and big. I used to get scared when my mother used to hold up sandwich crusts to the swirling mewing gulls when they used to swoop in and snatch from her outstretched arm. For the last 27 years living in Sandwich, seagulls are now different creatures. They are an intermittent part of the day. Annoying me by waking me up by bickering as they fly down the road just above roof height on their way to the landfill site outside Sandwich at Richborough for breakfast. In nearby towns such as Dover, Deal, Margate etc. gulls are pests and rip open bin bags left out for collection and strew rubbish everywhere and can be very aggressive during nesting time. So they are no longer the romantic, nostalgic reminders of lovely childhood holidays. Occasionally, only occasionally a gull will call and I am taken back to Porthcurno or St Ives.

From Dee Coulson in Ellon:

Bird sounds and songs have been part of my life since a small child. I remember arriving at my Grandma’s seaside Devon town on the train, with the sound of the seagulls mixed with steam trains hissing across the platform on arrival. We had arrived to the sound of the seagulls, smell of steam trains and sea air which I had impatiently anticipated since leaving our home in the suburbs. This is my earliest recollection of how interwoven bird sound can be with experience, emotion and memory. Today when I hear the sound of gulls I still remember the whole experience of being at my Grandmother’s house for summer holidays.

Daniel Eames from Northampton writes:

As a child from Northampton we only used to visit the coast once a year and even though Gulls can often be aggressive pests, they still remind me of fond childhood memories.

And from Gordon Smith in Aberdeen:

A Common Gull, just this moment, cried outside my room window. My instant response to that is clear pictures of massed trawlers at Point Law (Pint La) where I spent school holidays, 1948 to 1952, with my grandfather and uncle who were ships riggers at HE Stroud Trawel Owners, Market Street. Also pictured is the fish market with hundreds of huge halibut and thousands of boxes of fish, and scavenging gulls, in their hundreds if not thousands.

Clever Birds

08 May 2009

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.


Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:50 pm

The song of the nightingale is perhaps the most illustrious of any British bird.  Not too many people wrote to me about them, perhaps because they’re rather rare these days, but here are the contributions of some of those who did.  In some cases these might not have been ‘real nightingales’ but maybe that depends on what you think a ‘real nightingale’ is.

Stephen Munnion from London writes:

In the early 90s during the recession I was a struggling musician/designer living in Islington and it was a particularly bleak time for me – not enough to eat and not really a lot to cheer me up. Each night I would go for a long walk around Islington and even in January of 92/93 I could hear nightingale’s singing their beautiful songs. There are not many things on a bleak January night to cheer you up but I always noticed this. I am not a bird freak and I know very little about birds but I knew what the bird was – what other bird sings at night and, at the time, I guess I didn’t know that it was unusual to hear nightingales in January.

Sheila Ferguson from Maidstone writes:

I grew up in terraced housing in London and as a child my vivid memory is of a blackbird singing in the poplar tree next door. I have never forgotten its song. When I moved to Maidstone in Kent I was convinced for many years there were nightingales in the trees near the river until my daughter enlightened me about night-singing robins. A wonderful song and one which I will never fail to recognise now.

A respondent from Germany:

My most amazing experience was listening to a nightingale in Germany at night. I could not believe how beautiful and clear it was.

Richard Wild from Southampton writes:

As a native of Suffolk, my earliest recollection of recognisng bird song is of hearing a nightingale singing in the garden of the country house opposite my parents’ house in East Bergholt, situated between Colchester and Ipswich. I was probably in my early teens, and used to lie awake, listening for its clear song in the still, late evening, before falling into a deep sleep. It is a sound I have not heard since moving away from the area in 1971, and it is a great sadness to me.

A writer from Dudley:

I like birdsong generally, and can manage to recognize a number; some, such as skylark song, associated with holidays or country walks. My parents taught me to identify most birdsong I know. But most memorable was a ‘nightingale experience’. I learned to recognize its song from a sound effect used for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at school in the 1960s. I regretted that I’d never consciously heard the bird ‘live’ – until we went to Venice about 10 years ago. Walking on the island of Torcello, in the middle of the day, I suddenly realized I could hear a nightingale, which surprised me because its singing is associated with darkness. Completely unexpected, completely captivating.

A writer from New Mexico:

Where I live now in Albuquerque, New Mexico I rarely hear any bird song. Without it, everything feels a tad empty, dead, and eeriely quiet at times. I have noticed its lack and silently lamented. When I go home to England, I find the song of birds to be a big part of the homecoming. I love waking up hearing the chirps, chatters, and trills of the birds outside. I can literally feel my shoulders descend and my brain smile. One particular memory is of a bird that sings in a tree right outside of my parents house as dusk falls. The song is beautiful and mesmerising, so lyrical and virtuosic. In my head I have always thought of it as a nightingale but I don’t know if it really is.

From Ann Waddingham in Kent:

Outside our house, on late winter nights, a robin belts out a territorial number under the light of a street lamp – people often mistake them for nightingales but there’s no mistaking the real thing. I was absolutely thrilled to venture into the garden one still, June night and hear in the distance the real McCoy, singing by the river. It was a heart-stopping moment of pure joy. For three consecutive years they visited but sadly I haven’t heard them for three years since.

From Rosy Jones in Epsom:

A few years ago we were walking in a Sussex wood, and decided to have our sandwich lunch in a clearing beside some quite dense scrub. Just for a laugh I suggested to my partner that I’d call up a nightingale, not really thinking anything would happen. Still, I started whistling the repeated whistle call that the birds do in between their amazing song. Imagine our surprise when out of the thicket came the sound of a beautiful nightingale’s song. It continued to entertain us throughout our lunch – delightful!

And from Ruth Arundell in Barcelona:

On a camping holiday near the Pyrenees recently my husband and I had a nightingale singing in a small tree very close to our tent for the whole night. We’d never heard or seen one before, but there are so few birds which sing at night that we followed the sound in order to see and identify it. Later we recorded part of the song on an MP3 device so that we could compare it with recordings on the internet to be sure. As with the blackbirds, hearing the lovely melodious song coming from one small bird in the quiet of the night made me feel very peaceful and somehow privileged, as if it was singing just for us.


Skylarks | Some thoughts on connecting with bird song  | Crows and rooks | Blackbirds | A belated update


April 24, 2009

Andrew Whitehouse @ 9:20 am

Many people love to hear skylarks singing. Lee Cole from Ruislip writes:

I love to be out in the countryside and hear less familiar birds or even new birdsong and try and spot the owner. But the most amazing call of all has to be the skylark. To be walking a bleak moor or coastal path and to hear such an incredibly complex call. It’s almost as though it has to sing every known note in head in as short a time as possible before it falls from the sky.

From Maggie Lewis in Marlborough:

Growing up in suburban Essex one of the things I remember is hearing skylarks, I can’t remember where, but the area around my parents’ house was much less built up than it is now so it’s possible I heard them in the back garden. I would always try to pick out the tiny dot high in the sky – can’t do it now though. I still love to hear their song.

Alana Michael from Malvern writes:

There’s a particular place high up on the hills in mid Wales which I have loved for along time, and I associate it with skylarks. I have often heard skylarks there, and for me their song is one of the very best sounds, for the association with freedom, summer, and wild open countryside. I was there once with my mother, and when she died in 2004 I choose “Skylark” by Hoagie Carmichael, played by Stephan Grapelli and Yehudi Menuin, as the music that the funeral service ended with. This is not only a beautiful piece of music, but I wanted to suggest that her spirit was now free to soar after a long illness. It was exactly right for the occasion, and in my mind I now associate skylarks with the memory of my mother.

A correspondent from Turriff:

When I was at secondary school I had to catch the bus at the end of our farm road, which in the summer had fields of oats or barley on either side. And on those bright summer mornings, more often than not me and my brothers would hear the rising and falling twittering of skylarks, and see them fluttering above the crops. It’s such a happy sound, and unlike any other bird song I’ve heard, it was a great way to start the day. Skylarks always remind me of standing waiting for the school bus on a sunny morning, in my t-shirt with my rucksack on my back.

From Lynda Read in Sandwich:

Skylark: Reminds me of balmy summer evenings when I used to rush home from work, change clothes to join my twin sons on the golf course. They were both caddies at Royal St. George’s Golf Club, Sandwich in Kent. They had “artisan” passes so that when members of the club had finished, they could play on the course. It is a links course (sand dunes by the sea shore) and skylarks were always there singing in the background. Sometimes we might disturb them if a stray ball went into the rough and we would see a brown bird take off. More often than not though we could not see the birds only hear them singing high above us. You might see a dot in the sky that may or may not have been the source of this amazing sound. It seemed multi-directional, just coming out of the sky. Absolute magic.

From Marian Reid in Boness:

When I was a child I hoidayed at my great-uncle’s in Portgordon, by Buckie in Morayshire. He had a very peaceful house by the sea. One of my abiding memories of this time was lying on the grass outside the house under the wonderful hazy blue skies with the sound of skylarks singing high overhead and feeling my heart soar with their call. I never ever could see any of them though, no matter how hard I looked. Today I live at the edge of town in Boness with lots of fields close by. I hear the skylarks in summer and always remember those happy days and feel my heart free again.

Some thoughts on connecting with bird song

23 April 2009

Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:36 pm

Here are some thoughts from a correspondent in Wales:

I would describe myself as a ‘birder’ in that I go out regularly to look for birds and like to identify the birds I see (by sound and sight). However, there is also an emotional element to it. Bird song is a wonderful way to connect directly and easily with nature. Listening for birds is a form of meditation, in that it directs attention away from all the other clutter that fills our lives, and fully immerses me in the nature around me.

Some birdsong in particular does evoke emotion, particularly the robin. From about mid-august the song becomes melancholic, and somehow reminds me of the coming winter, and makes me feel slightly melancholic too! In January/ Feb, an increase in the amount of birdsong is uplifting, as it reminds me of the coming spring. The birds themselves all sound cheery and happy about the changing seasons, and I do too.

I have a musical ear, and my automatic response when identifying a bird song is to listen for a unique tune in the song. This makes it very difficult to identify birds which do a continuous mixture of notes with no obvious (to me) tune e.g. blackcap, reed warbler, sedge warbler, whereas I can ‘sing’ along with a great tit or blackbird.

And some from Canada:

Birdsong re-connects me to the natural world I sometimes forget I am a part of. As well as providing a natural guide to the time of day, the sound itself can be spiritually rewarding. I grew up an avid birdwatcher as a kid and have always been fascinated by birds. I often find myself stopping what I’m doing for a few moments in private on the way out of the house or in the street, close my eyes for a moment and feel like I’m actually taking part in the morning (or evening) as an actual event. I can feel totally connected to the world via the sounds/songs of birds. Songs/ calls of eagles/ hawks in particular have a very spiritual aspect and can make the hairs on my neck stand up in a second – a reccuring dream I sometimes have is of a lone hawk high above me circling and calling. I remember being at university and every morning it was like somebody ‘switched the birds on’ outside, like it was through a huge speaker next to my window – it was a bizarre experience. Birdsong is the unheard sountrack of our lives.

And from Sweden:

There is something truly magical about bird song. No matter how stressed or tired I feel, upon hearing birds singing, I always feel uplifted and less anxious. It’s like having a reality check, like nature is saying to you that it’s ok – the world keeps spinning and mother nature remains a constant in a world of fast-paced change.
I always try to spot the singer in it’s tree and I am astonished at the power of such a small creature – the power to sing and the power to move and calm my senses. I know it’s a cliche’ but bird song really makes me remember what I am – just a fellow species on this planet. And it makes me feel safe and connected to nature.

Crows and rooks

16 April 2009

From Giovanna Dunbar, Croyden, England

If I hear crows crowing on a cold and frosty morning then it always reminds me of walking to school, many years ago.

From Jane Baxendale, Warrington, England

My favourite experience of birdsong is of being on holiday in Cornwall, Rose Hill Campsite at Porthtowan, over the last 8 years. The site is surrounded with many old high trees and each night the Rooks would return to their nests, making such a curfuffle (is there such a word?). A few would arrive first, then the body of the flock, then finally a few stragglers. They were very noisy and would flap in and out of the trees, flitting from tree to tree, branch to branch, for about an hour before settling down for the night. I imagined that they were visiting relatives and making plans for the next day. It was a privelege to witness it.

From Richard Wild, Southampton, England

Rooks are the birds I will always associate with my wife’s dislike of mornings. In Essex and Suffolk, when I was a boy, the farmers used to go out in the early mornings and late evenings, when the birds were still roosting, and shoot their shotguns through the bottom of the nests of these birds, in order to keep their number under control. Of course, nowadays, farmers are not allowed to continue this practice, and town Rooks are free to rampage at will. Their early morning call in our oak trees manages to penetrate our double glazing, particularly in Spring, much to my wife’s annoyance.

From James Dignan, Dunedin, New Zealand

I moved from Croughton, Northamptonshire to New Zealand when I was eleven. There were many things I expected to miss when I came to New Zealand – friends, winter Christmases, familiar television programmes, and the like – but one of the most evocative single thing I have missed in the years since is the cawing of crows at twilight. The birds here in New Zealand have their own sounds – even species I know from Britain, like blackbirds, sound different here (a different “accent” or “dialect”, I suppose) – and I’ve no doubt I would miss the trilling of bellbirds and tui and the “peep, peep” of fantails if I were to move back to the UK. But there are no crows here, and the sound of crows still makes me homesick. There’s one particular song – “Senses Working Overtime”, by the band XTC – which ends in the sound of crows cawing. It always remind me of childhood in a south Midlands village in the 1970s.

From Kee Hoo, Forest Hills, New York

During my adolescence, I would regularly watch a local murder of crows that inhabited my parents’ neighborhood and one day, I decided to mimic a crow call of one of them as it sat on a branch above. It looked at me curiously, I remember so I continued the call, and my young nephew joined me in the kawing. Within the space of 5 to 7 minutes, several other crows flew in and perched themselves in the other trees above us and all started in with various kaws, surrounding us. At this point, I felt that it would be a wise decision to move my nephew and I back into the safety of our house, we were beginning to feel a slightly malevolent air coming off the birds. I’m not sure what I was saying but I guess it wasn’t appreciated.


15 April 2009

Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:54 pm

Blackbirds are singing a lot in Britain now, and they seem to sound especially good on a warm, still evening. Caroline Brown from Bedford writes:

When I was in my first year of university I lived in student halls next to a building site. The builders worked from 8 o’clock in the morning until 5 in the evening, and for the majority of that time all I could hear in my room was machinery. But in the middle of the night when I was lying in bed I used to leave my window open to listen to the sound of the blackbirds singing. It seemed like they were as joyful as me to appreciate the all-too-brief peace, and reminded me of childhood summers spent playing cricket until it was too dark to see the ball. I can honestly say that few sounds will ever make me feel so utterly content.

From a respondent in London:

I am lucky enough to live overlooking Bunhill Fields in The City of London. William Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan were buried there. A virtuoso blackbird – Murphy – inhabits Bunhill Fields and has entertained my family and neighbours for several years. He and Mrs Murphy are imprinted on our block of flats, usually trying to nest in one or other of the balconies, on top of a security camera, and last year on a pipe in our basement garage. Murphy’s singing is so gloriously over the top that you sometimes have to laugh from the sheer exuberance of it. Also, Murphy’s territory includes a primary school, and I think he may have picked up some intonations from the children. Murphy is a “shared value” linking a pretty sophisticated but loose-knit group of people together.

From Elizabeth Soulie:

In May 1999, my sister and I were at my mother’s bedside in Somerset. She was dying, peacefully, after many frustrating years of immobilisation following a series of strokes. During the week before her death, we were sharing a bedroom in a nearby bed and breakfast. She died one morning at 4am when we were sleeping. At the same time, we were woken by the clear, loud, full-throated song of a blackbird, even though it was still dark. We both wondered why it was singing in the night and listened to it for some time.

When we were informed of my mother’s death a little later that morning, I immediately thought that it was as if she had come to sing her great happiness at being free from her handicap at last and it was a very comforting thought. Since then the dawn or dusk song of the blackbird has always brought back memories of my mother. It is the most musical and soul-lifting sound.


A belated update

Andrew Whitehouse @ 10:23 am

The blog has been very quiet for a long time now, but this is more a reflection of how much has been happening with the project than how little. After a terrific time at REGUA in southeast Brazil, I was fortunate enough to visit New Zealand for the Association of Social Anthropologists’ conference in December. I’d received quite a lot of interesting contributions to the project from New Zealand, so it was great to be able to listen to birds there myself. The fascinating, and sometimes tragic, thing about New Zealand is how the birdlife closely reflects the country’s human history, both in terms of what you hear and what you don’t hear. Last week I headed to this year’s ASA conference in Bristol, where I gave a paper about interactions between people and birds through sound and convened a wonderful panel on imitation together with my colleague Petra Kalshoven.

In a bid to keep the blog going, I thought I would regularly post some of the many hundreds of contributions to the project that I’ve been sent. I don’t intend to comment too much on these but instead hope that they speak for themselves.


Crakes, objects and sounds

August 15, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 5:53 pm

The ‘Listening to Birds’ project has decamped to Brazil for a few months, which partly explains the lack of recent postings. Hopefully there will be more to read over the coming weeks. To kick things off, here are a few thoughts on some tricky birds to see.

In certain parts of Europe, a sound that can be heard during the summer months is the dry and repetitive call of a corncrake. This was once a familiar sound but the bird has declined enormously over the past century in the face of agricultural intensification. I’ve heard corncrakes on many occasions, particularly when I was living on the island of Islay in the west of Scotland, a remaining stronghold for the species. But much to my frustration, I’ve never seen a corncrake. They’re skulking birds that live in grassy fields and dry marshland, where they remain almost constantly invisible and, try as I might, they’ve never even shown their heads above the tops of the grass when I’ve been around.

I’ve been hearing crakes recently too. At present I’m at the wonderful Reserva Ecologica de Guapiaçu (REGUA) and there are plenty of crakes on the wetlands near my house. Here they lurk in the extensive beds of rushes, where the chances of seeing them are slender. The strange and sometimes rather un-birdlike calls of different species have been pointed out to me by rangers and other visiting birders:

Later, I’ve been able to compare what I’ve heard with pre-existing recordings and so was able to confirm that I’d heard the ‘right sounds’. But I’ve never seen any of these crakes and rails, and certainly haven’t seen them making the sounds that are attributed to them. For most birds it’s eventually possible to see them making sounds, but crakes present an altogether greater challenge, a challenge that raises some important questions about sounds and naming (or more specifically that process of naming normally called ‘identification’). Prominent amongst these is the question of the way in which I ‘know’ I’m hearing a crake.

How does one know that a sound is made by a particular bird, if one has never seen the bird making that sound? I suppose in one sense I know that I’m hearing crakes in the same way that I ‘know’ the Earth is spherical. Like most people I’ve never seen the Earth as a sphere (although I’ve seen plenty of images of this of course), but I go along with the conventional understanding of its roundness. But this isn’t something I’ve experienced directly. Perhaps if I had training in astrophysics I would be able to perceive the effects of the Earth’s spherical shape all the time, and it’s worth remembering that this was the conventional scientific understanding long before anyone had seen the Earth as a whole. But I’ve never seen the Earth as a whole and nor have I seen a corncrake making that rasping sound.

But why all the fuss about seeing? ‘Seeing is believing’ is the saying, but why is this? It has something to do with what philosophers call ontology, that is the ideas behind what we believe the world to be like. One of the cornerstones of our ontology is the idea that the world is filled with objects and that sounds have their source in these objects. Applying this to the case in question, ‘crex crex’ is a sound made by an object we call a corncrake. The sound is not the bird, rather it is made by the bird. And conventionally the bird is only apprehended as an object through our seeing it. Perhaps this all seems rather obvious and beyond question, but this might not be the only way to think about sounds, or indeed our experience of the world.

What if we were to think of the sound as being the bird, just as much as the feathery thing we conventionally think makes the sound? Such a way of thinking is not so uncommon amongst other peoples, and I suspect it was once more conventional amongst our ancestors, as is reflected in the prominence of onomatopoeic vernacular names. The way we name birds can reflect on how we think about and perceive them. It’s much easier to think of a sound as the bird if it has an onomatopoeic name. In fact the name ‘crake’ is onomatopoeic of the corncrake (which even has an onomatopoeic scientific name: Crex crex), although when applied to the South American crakes it’s less helpful. To give a more familiar example, when one ‘hears the cuckoo’, one is directly perceiving the bird. ‘Seeing the cuckoo’ makes a bit less sense, until it becomes conventionalised as the name of a family of birds. I’ve seen several kinds of cuckoo in Brazil, but have not heard a single ‘cuckoo’.

I think these ontological assumptions also help to explain why birders, like me, are so keen to see birds. It’s only through seeing, we assume, that we perceive ‘the bird’. Hearing a bird is, in this way of thinking, no different to seeing its nest or its tracks. They are made by the bird, but they are not the bird. I still find it hard to ‘unlearn’ these assumptions, no matter how I might rationalise them.

Anyway, I’m off now to the wetlands to listen to crakes, and perhaps to think of some new names for what I hear.


Travels and Telly | So what did I learn?

Travels and Telly

20 June 2008

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.

So what did I learn?

05 June 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:53 pm

Previously I’ve written about techniques for learning bird sounds from recordings and how these can be used when preparing for visits to places where the birds are unfamiliar. Well, now I’ve been to America and heard and seen lots of birds there, so how did I get on with using these methods? Not surprisingly, the results were mixed and I wasn’t always able to identify every sound that I heard. However, there were plenty of occasions when I heard new birds and was fairly confidently able to figure out what they were. Below I outline some of the problems and some of the successes.

Successes: The first birding I did in America was in Central Park, New York and I was pleased that I was able to recognise the thrush-like song of American Robin, with its distinctive alternating phrases. The contextual cue of seeing lots of Robins was obviously helpful in getting me to this conclusion too.

Warblers were the biggest task I faced because there are so many different species (I saw 25 in all) and their songs are often rather similar. Two species that I was able to identify before seeing them were Kentucky Warbler and Blue-winged Warbler. Kentucky Warbler has a simple song consisting of a two-note phrase repeated several times. I remembered this with the mnemonic phrase ‘Fry it, fry it, fry it’ (as said by someone working in KFC I guess!), and this certainly helped me to pick up on the pattern, quality and cadence of the song, which is subtly different to some other warblers, such as Ovenbird. Ovenbird sounds more galloping (it’s almost like it’s saying ‘giddy up’) and less ‘liquid’ than Kentucky Warbler.

Blue-winged Warbler has a fairly distinctive two note song that sounds like someone sighing or even snoring. I imagined someone in blue and yellow (the main colours of this species) snoozing away when I heard this recording. It took just a brief snatch of song to get me onto the only Blue-winged Warbler I saw. I didn’t have to summon up the visualisation, I more-or-less instantly knew what it was.

A group of birds where I hoped a knowledge of the songs would prove particularly useful are Empidomax flycatchers. This is a genus where every species looks extremely similar but where the songs and calls differ more noticeably. I saw quite a few, but unfortunately a lot of these remained silent. However, I was able on a couple of occasions to confidently identify Acadian Flycatcher from its bright, two-note upward inflected song. In this case, to identify the song I first of all needed to know I was looking at an Empidomax and I also checked my own recording against others that I had, just to be sure. I was still pretty confident in the field though.

There were quite a few other occasions when I knew songs without necessarily having to see the bird. The pure tones of an Eastern Wood-pewee and the beautiful lilting song of a Wood Thrush were both very distinctive and when I heard dry rattling songs, I knew, at least when I took context into account, that I was hearing Chipping Sparrow, Worm-eating Warbler or Pine Warbler.

Problems: The biggest problem was actually finding the time to learn the songs beforehand. Figuring out the playlists is a big part of the process, and is in itself integral to the learning process as well as being a practicality. As Stephenson mentions in his article, learning the sounds through testing has to be taken in small, easy steps so ideally it would be best to start learning a few months in advance and to do a little bit each day. My work schedule tended to mean I had to do it in more concentrated spells, which worked less well. Many of the problems I encountered can at least partially be explained by a straightforward lack of preparation. But, why couldn’t I identify all of the sounds I heard? Here are a few reasons.

Only learning songs: Almost all of the sounds I tried to learn were songs rather than calls. This was partly for simplicity’s sake. Learning all the various sounds that most species make would be a very hard task and, as it was spring, I thought a lot of what I heard would be singing. To some extent this was true, but, as I expected, there were lots of other sounds too and I struggled with those. Some I could pick up easily like the Robin-like ‘tick’ of a Northern Cardinal or the ‘chickadeedeedee’ of the various Chickadee species. Others were confusingly obscure or very similar to one another.

Differences between recordings and the real thing: This is another problem that was perhaps not surprising. Many songbirds have local ‘dialects’ and other sorts of variations in their songs, which meant that the song I’d learnt from a recording was sometimes significantly different to the songs of the same species I encountered in the field. This was particularly apparent with Eastern Towhee and Song Sparrow. Of course, part of the skill of learning bird sounds is to be able to recognise the style and pattern of a bird so that variations can still be recognised. That level of skill takes time to acquire though.

Developing the skill of visualisation: Stephenson advocates visualisation to remember sounds. I found this quite tricky and visualisation as a memory technique is not an activity that I found came easily to me. I find it more straightforward to remember words, or perhaps more accurately phrases or even stories. Some of my visualisations worked but I don’t think I ever found the visualisation being ‘triggered’ by hearing the sound in the field. Rather, the visualisations and the stories were useful for becoming familiar with the characteristics of the sound but it was hard to instantaneously relate the sound back to the visualisation when I heard the sound ‘for real’. The mnemonic techniques worked well within the narrow context of testing but they were less effective in the much more open circumstances of the field, when I could be hearing all kinds of sound.

Only learning the context of the playlist: This brings me on to the final problem of both learning the context and learning within a context. Recognition of anything is contextual. If I had heard a familiar British bird in America, I would probably have been momentarily confused because I wouldn’t have been expecting to hear it and would probably have assumed it was an American species that made similar sounds. Admittedly, I didn’t have these difficulties with the numerous House Sparrows I encountered but I knew from guide books that I would be hearing them. But as well as needing to learn the context so that we might anticipate what we encounter, we learn within a context and listening to a playlist, even one that is played randomly, is a different context to the field. The playlist is limited and closed and this means that it only presents certain possibilities. The field is open to manifold possibilities, even if some are more possible than others. These different contexts of listening present different challenges and learning a song within the context of the playlist test is usually more straightforward than knowing what it is in the field. For a start the playlist is based around certain characteristics, e.g. descending songs, so the listener doesn’t have to take so much notice of that characteristic when listening because it’s already a given. The fields where we listen to real birds are vastly more complex and open-ended, although this complexity does at least provide for a lot more clues.

As I mentioned earlier, all of these problems can be countered to an extent by learning over a longer period, becoming more skilled at mnemonics, and by developing more refined techniques. The problem of the limited context of the playlist could, for example, be countered by placing birds on a range of playlists (e.g. habitat or area based ones) and also by testing yourself against all of the recordings in your collection, rather than just within a short playlist.

This process raises a number of questions about the stages of learning and what is it to ‘know’ a sound. In most parts of Britain, I think I know the sounds of birds very well. I don’t often encounter sounds that I can’t put a name to and in many cases I can ‘hear’ the sounds of a species in my head on demand. If I think of a Robin singing, I can hear pretty accurately what it sounds like in my ‘mind’s ear’. In America, I didn’t know the sounds as well as that. If I ‘knew’ a sound it was a less confident kind of knowing. In many of the successful examples I describe above, I still felt that I needed to see the bird to be sure I was hearing what I thought I was. I also found that there were some sounds I knew one day but had forgotten by the next. In only a few cases can I replay the song in my head. In most cases, I only know songs in a contingent way: I know them when I hear them. But ultimately, any kind of knowing is somewhat contingent on circumstances and learning through recordings does not mean that the sounds of the birds are ‘known’ but that one knows what to listen for.


Screaming summer | How to learn bird sounds at home

Screaming summer

May 7, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 4:44 pm

Swifts are back, at least here in Aberdeen. They arrived, rather suddenly as they often do, on Monday and have been gathering and swirling above the city roof tops ever since. If I’m pushed I usually claim that swifts are my favourite birds, although dippers have a strong case too. Part of the reason why I think they’re so wonderful is that incredible screeching noise they make, a sound that seems so redolent of warm summer days. The arrival of swifts is perhaps the bird arrival that I look forward to the most, and come late summer I shall be keenly looking to see how long they stay on for.

Many people wrote to me about swifts and their associations. Andrew from Crowborough said:

I’ve listened to different birds since I was a child. The one I always listen out for is swifts. They don’t make a nice sound but I always associate their arrival with the beginning of summer.

Judith from Huntingdon adds:

Whenever I hear the sound of swifts screaming above during the summer, I am transported back to the garden of the house in which I was brought up in Southport, Lancashire

Melissa from London shares my enthusiasm:

The bird song I love the best is the scream of the swift, because of its associations with summer. I always watch out for them, and this year I heard them before I saw them, on my way in to work one day. It was a heart-lifting moment. In central London you do see them flying overhead, but usually very far up and not very audible. I love going away in summer, to Devon or the Lake District, somewhere where they scream and dive almost around your head. They stay such a short time, the beeping cries of the house martins lingering a bit longer.

And Philip from Preston has similar feelings:

The screaming of parties of swifts swooping down between the house tops is perhaps my favourite bird sound (it’s hardly a song!). Coupled with the spectacle of their flight, it is so exciting it makes me want to yelp with joy! And of course it tells us that spring will soon be summer or indeed that summer is already here (but not for long – the swifts stay for such a short time). May they always return – the thought of summer without them is unbearable.

I think this last quote suggests one of the reasons why swifts are so strongly associated with summer. Their presence so closely coincides with that season, arriving in early May and leaving in early to mid August. Like a typically British summer they’re brief and ephemeral but, with their needle-winged flight and screaming cries, full of effervescent life.

How to learn bird sounds at home

May 5, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 11:50 am

Learning new bird sounds is difficult for most people, and I don’t regard myself as any better than anyone else despite having been birding for most of my life. I was interested, then, to read the article by Tom Stephenson on Surfbirds about techniques he’s developed to learn bird sounds prior to going on foreign trips. I often find that when I go abroad I can learn to identify birds visually quite rapidly, particularly if I’ve leafed through the field guides beforehand. But learning sounds takes much longer. I can normally pick up a few each day but it’s a struggle and I end up spending much of the trip bewildered by an array of unfamiliar new sounds.

Soon I’m going to be spending a short time in North America and there are other trips abroad scheduled for later in the year, so I was keen to try out these techniques to see if they would help me learn at least some of the songs and calls before I go away. North America is a good place to start because I know a lot of the birds visually but don’t know the songs of many species (I’ve mainly been to America in autumn and winter previously). Also, although it’s very good for birds, it doesn’t have huge numbers of species, so the list of sounds to learn is shorter than it would be for the tropics.

The technique has a number of stages. The first is to gather together the recordings you need, which involves working out what species are likely where you are going as well as downloading, and possibly editing, the recordings. Next you need to make up various playlists of 5-10 species where the calls or songs have similar qualities. This is where the learning really starts and I found it quite a challenge to come up with these. What qualities do you select for the playlists? Pitch (high or low, ascending, descending, staying the same)? Repetition (the same phrase over and over, repetition then variation as with a song thrush)? The number of notes in the song (two, three or four note)? The pattern of sound (rambling and continuous, regular pauses)? The quality of the sound (buzzy, rattling, ‘electrical’, shrill)? Of course a lot of sounds have more than one of these qualities, which complicates things a bit, but trying to figure out the playlists is useful because it requires that you listen actively and systematically to the recordings. I’ve used pretty much all of the above qualities in making playlists, but I still think I need to work on it more, especially with the many rather similar high-pitched songs of birds like warblers.

The next stage is to come up with mnemonics that help you to link the sound to the bird. Sometimes this is relatively easy, for example when the name is onomatopoeic, but Stephenson recommends coming up with ways of linking sound and name through visualisation. The visualisation should ideally link name, sound and the appearance of the bird. For example, least flycatcher, a small American songbird, has a song that sounds a bit like it’s saying ‘titchy’, which links rather straightforwardly to its name and its small size. I imagine a small person saying ‘titchy’ when I hear the sound.

The final part of the technique involves repeatedly testing yourself on each playlist by using the random play function of your media player. This is an aspect of the technique that technology has really helped to facilitate. What’s important here is that the random element enables the mnemonic techniques to be tested actively. This active approach to remembering runs through the whole process and I think this is helpful for learning and remembering in general. Passive learning, whilst it sometimes seems popular in our nation’s schools, is rarely the most effective way of developing skills. The technique also highlights the relationship between hearing and seeing, because it’s through visualisation that the sounds are remembered. One of the important aspects of visualisation is that it tends to be much more instantaneous than the way we remember sounds. For example, when I hear the beginning of a song I often have to ‘play it through’ in my mind to try to remember what it is. Visualisation is, hopefully, much quicker.

I’ll update on my progress after I’ve been to America.


Project update

April 11, 2008

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.


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.


An exhaltation of larks

March 22, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:34 pm

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the beautiful and bird-rich northeast of Spain. There were plenty of birds singing in the various habitats I visited, and I had an interesting time trying to recognise the various sounds. Some of these were familiar from home, others were sounds I’ve heard on previous visits to continental Europe but which I don’t hear regularly. I was interested to discover which of these I could remember. Some were very obvious, such as the simple and insistent ‘sip-sip-sip’ of a zitting cisticola (or fan-tailed warbler, if you prefer). There were other sounds that were a bit harder to recall but which I recognised once I heard them, like the harsh ratchet-like call of a Sardinian warbler and the distinctive buzzy twittering of a serin, a sound that seems so redolent of warm sunny gardens in southern Europe.

But the finest spectacle of sound was in the drylands at El Planeron, just to the east of Zaragoza. Early morning here was cool with a lingering mist and the air was filled with singing larks, particularly the numerous lesser short-toed larks, together with thekla and calandra larks. Whenever I’m in open country like this, it strikes me that the way that birds sing is different to how they sing in more enclosed habitats such as woodland. Here the birds don’t find a discrete perch to sing from but instead they take to the air and their singing is a continuous stream of sound and not the well-mannered bursts and pauses of woodland birds. Here’s part of a recording I made at El Planeron.


Interspersed amongst the relentless twittering of lesser short-toed larks is a rather different sound: a rising three-note song where the last note is strangely inflected. This is the song of the avian speciality of El Planeron, a Dupont’s lark. This is one of those birds that is perhaps most readily encountered as a sound. They sing much more from the ground than other larks and they are, as anyone who has ever tried to look for them will tell you, bewilderingly hard to catch sight of. You can hear one rather more clearly on this recording.

Eventually I saw one rise up from the ground like the other larks and give a circling song flight high up above me. But when I think of a Dupont’s lark, what I think of is that strange three-note phrase that I heard almost continuously at El Planeron, emerging from what seemed like the landscape itself.


Listening to Birds on ASR tomorrow | Life in Mono | Auditory illusions | Birdwatching and Heard Listing | Caerlaverock | Why bird sounds?

Listening to Birds on ASR tomorrow

February 28, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 11:31 am

The Listening to Birds project will be featured on Fiona-Jane Brown’s show on Aberdeen Student Radio tomorrow morning between 11 and 12. I’ll be playing folk music about birds as well as talking about the project. 


Life in Mono

February 22, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:32 pm

A few days ago I read this very revealing and intelligent article by Nick Coleman, a music critic who recently lost his sense of hearing in one ear. This left him with a very different and rather disorienting sense of the sounds that he heard. Although Coleman is mostly talking about how he hears human music, there are a few points that he makes that I think have relevance to how we listen to birds.

Coleman describes how, previous to his loss of hearing, music was for him ‘architectural’. That is, he experienced music much as he would experience being inside a building. I suppose this is true for a great many people; I know that when I listen to music I can easily imagine being in certain sorts of place, particularly when I close my eyes. Unlike Coleman, these places are not always buildings, but I still feel immersed in the world as the music surrounds me.

Coleman’s once architectural sense of music was detailed and rich, but since his impairment he only hears music as two-dimensional and flat, like an architectural drawing rather than a building. What’s more significant is that he now feels no emotion when listening to music. What was once his way of ‘containing and then examining emotion’ is now bereft of feeling. There are clearly many benefits to having two ears (and also for that matter two eyes) and the sense of depth that the two different sources of information provide is critical, something explained by Gregory Bateson in his magnificent book Mind and Nature. But what’s at first surprising is that this loss of depth, the loss of his architectural sense of music, also caused Coleman to lose any sense of emotion or feeling in music.

Interestingly, the only occasion since his loss in which music has provoked emotion in Coleman was when he watched the memorial service from the Cenotaph on TV. But when he listened to some of the music played at the service on his stereo it was an awful, flat noise once again. Perhaps his response to the service was different because he could see what was taking place and because of his memories of previous services, as Oliver Sacks speculates. Imagination and the familiarity of context provided the depth that was missing through hearing.

What I take from Coleman’s story is the way that music, and perhaps sound more generally, provide us with a feeling of being in the world. And what’s more, the ‘high order’ properties of music tend to heighten those feelings. This, then, has some relevance to why the sound of birds can affect us so much. Hearing birds singing can both heighten our experience of being in the world, and of being somewhere specific. It can also transport us through memory and imagination to other places, times and feelings.

Coleman ends by commenting that he is gradually adapting to the limitations of his hearing. Just as ‘being in the world’ is something we learn to do, it seems that the sense of being that comes through hearing develops and adapts with us.

Auditory illusions

February 14, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:35 pm

Tuesday was a beautiful late winter’s day here in Aberdeen – sunny and quite mild. Quite a few birds were singing and calling and as I walked home through an area of old buildings and warehouses I briefly heard a sound that stopped me in my tracks. It was a drawn out trilling sound, perhaps followed by a few scratchy notes, although it was hard to be certain of this above the noise of the traffic. My immediate reaction was that this was something different, a sound that was not one I normally hear about the city. My next reaction was that it sounded rather like the song of a lesser whitethroat – a sound I know rather well, but one that I would never expect to hear in such a context. The idea that a lesser whitethroat, which is a summer visitor and scarce in Aberdeen at the best of times, would be singing from (it seemed) a rooftop in the middle of February was so implausible that I cast that aside as a possibility. I then remembered that the song of a black redstart is rather reminiscent of a lesser whitethroat. I’m less familiar with this song but I’ve heard it plenty of times on visits to continental Europe where the bird is common. In the circumstances, black redstart seemed more likely, although still unusual; it’s more likely to appear during the winter and they’re quite commonly found in built-up, urban areas. I was willing to entertain the possibility but was that really what I’d heard?

It was clear to me that I needed to hear the sound one more time to be sure of what I was hearing but I waited for a few minutes for the bird to sing again and heard nothing resembling the sound that had made me stop and listen. There were other birds calling, including a few greenfinches which give a few trilling calls but of a rather different quality to a black redstart. Perhaps I’d misheard a greenfinch though. I began to wonder what it was that I hadn’t heard clearly and needed to assess again. Certainly I’d heard the trill – the pattern of the sound – quite clearly. But what about the quality of the sound, the timbre? A black redstart and a greenfinch trill are very different in quality but less so in pattern. Perhaps it was this quality that made it seem different, but I couldn’t be sure from that one brief burst of sound.

So I needed another listen to check the quality of the sound and to do this I needed to be listening properly and giving the sound my full attention. That first time I’d heard it, I’d been listening in an open way rather than focussing on a particular sound. This had only served to draw my attention to something that sounded different, or out of place. The second burst was needed for verification or at least for confirmation that I really was hearing something out of the ordinary. It’s rather like a sequence from a horror film: sound (maybe a snap from a breaking twig or a creaking floorboard) – question (what was that?) – repeat of first sound – confirmation of what the sound is – reaction (run or scream!).

There was no second sound though and yesterday morning I returned to the same area and heard nothing more, although the greenfinches were still there. I suspect I shall be listening a little more attentively as I pass through this area, at least for the next few days. I’ve now begun to wonder what I heard. From such a brief experience I’m struggling to have any kind of memory of what the sound was really like. Perhaps the sound that I now recall is actually one of the recordings of black redstart that I’ve listened back to.

It’s sometimes said that there are no ‘auditory illusions’, only optical illusions. The light does indeed play tricks. But does sound do that too? Certainly sound can be distorted, but I think what’s more significant is the way that we listen to sound and how we go about identifying what it is that we’re hearing. What sort of process do we need to go through in order be sure of what we’re hearing? Birders hear and see lots of ‘possibles and probables’ and doubtless forget about most of them in due course. Most of these fail to become ‘definites’ because of some sort of problem in perception; that second call or prolonged close view that would turn possible into probable and probable into definite never happens. But I think these tantalising episodes are potentially more significant in revealing the processes of perception than any stonewall certainty, satisfying though certainty is.


Birdwatching and heard listing

February 12, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 10:30 am

I’m a birder, or should that be birdwatcher? Lots of people are interested in watching and listening to birds but quite where a casual interest turns into birding is hard to say. I’d define a birder as someone who regularly participates in activities that have a clear focus on encountering birds. Birders don’t just go out and notice the birds around them while they’re doing something else, they go out specifically to see and hear birds. I say ‘see and hear’ but I would say that for most birders the aim is to watch birds rather than to listen to them. This is not to say that birders aren’t interested in hearing birds. On the contrary, hearing birds is very significant but this is usually as a means to an end. Whilst people go birding for lots of reasons, I think most birders have two particular goals in mind in pursuing their pastime; they want to see birds and they want to know what kind of birds they are seeing. The sounds a bird makes are often extremely useful for revealing the location of birds, particularly when they’re in thick cover or flying overhead, and so attending to calls helps birders to see the bird. They can also assist in identifying a bird, most obviously in distinguishing similar looking species or recognising birds that have only been seen poorly. But although birders often enjoy hearing birds, I think listening for calls and songs is often seen by them as a means to those two ends of seeing and identifying.

Birders are, by reputation, rather keen on keeping lists of the birds they encounter and they often maintain a whole variety of these. There are life lists for all the birds they’ve ever recorded, national lists, year lists for species recorded in a calendar year, local patch lists, day lists etc. I’m not that much of a lister myself, although I do keep a few. But like a lot of birders I make an important distinction for the purposes of listing between birds that I hear and birds that I see. On some lists, particularly the very important life list and British list, I only count a bird if I’ve seen it. Although there are plenty of exceptions, I would say that this attitude is the norm amongst birders. This thread on Birdforum gives a good indication of how a lot of birders approach the question of whether to ‘tick’ birds (that is, include it on their lists) that they only hear.

For many, a bird clearly seems more real to them once they’ve seen it and hearing a bird without seeing it seems like a disappointment, particularly if it’s a species that isn’t on their list. I must confess that whilst I can’t readily explain why seeing a bird makes it seem more real, I still find it hard to get past the desire to see a bird. On hearing a bird, particularly one that I ‘need’ for a list, my first reaction is always to try and see it. Hearing it is a means to this end only, albeit a rather affecting means.

To redress this emphasis on seeing I’ve decided to take up ‘heard listing’ and I encourage other birders to do the same. Fairly obviously, I can only count species on my heard list if I’ve heard them utter a sound. So how am I doing? Well, my ‘British List’ of species that I’ve seen in Britain stands at a fairly lowly 311. I can only think of two species that I’ve heard in Britain but never seen, those elusive birds Quail and Corncrake. But how many have I seen but never heard? It turns out to be a great many more. Of course this raises the question of what counts as a sound. Do ducks splashing into the water count? Perhaps not, although again this is rather arbitrary, but vocalisations and mechanical sounds made by the bird certainly do. I’ve heard most of the passerine (songbird) species that I’ve seen, aside from a handful of rare vagrants that I’ve only rarely encountered. The gaps become much more apparent amongst the waterbirds, seabirds and birds of prey. A glance through the Collins Guide (the leading field identification guide to European birds) reveals that many diving duck are ‘rather silent’ and indeed there are a lot that I can’t recall ever hearing. I see red-breasted merganser on an almost daily basis but can’t say that I’ve ever heard the weak display call of the male or the “repeated hard, grating ‘prrak prrak prrak'” of the female. What’s most striking is that I’m often unsure as to whether I’ve heard a species or not, a situation unlikely to arise with seeing birds. Have I ever heard a glaucous gull? Possibly not. The one I regularly see from my bedroom in Aberdeen harbour seems to keep pretty quiet, but I’ll be casting my ear in its direction in an attempt to get it on my heard list.

Birding is an activity and like any activity it is a particularly way of encountering our world and the other lifeforms within it. Through birding I’ve learnt to perceive in a particular way and to attach significance to certain elements of what I encounter. Unlike the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, whom Steven Feld has written so eloquently about, I don’t apprehend birds initially as sounds or ‘voices in the forest’, as they put it. Instead I’ve learnt to understand birds as things that make sounds. I’m not sure that heard listing will change this understanding, particularly because unlike the Kaluli I’ll be trying to hear birds that are much more readily seen than heard, but it may help to make me listen a little more attentively.


February 4, 2008

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 appropriate 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

Why bird sounds?

February 1, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:19 pm

A couple of days ago I read this interesting report about how scientists have discovered that certain sounds made by Anna’s hummingbirds are produced mechanically by the tail feathers rather than being vocalisations. This reminded me to explain why the Listening to Birds project is about bird sounds in the broadest possible sense. Perhaps when I mention ‘listening to birds’ people at first think of bird song or more broadly bird vocalisations. But birds make lots of beautiful, startling and evocative sounds that aren’t produced through the syrinx, the specialised organ they use to produce songs and calls. Perhaps the most obvious example of these ‘other sounds’ is the drumming of a woodpecker. But there are others. As birds move through the air the wings rush and whir. And birds make all kinds of other sounds as they interact with their physical surroundings, sounds like the gushing of a duck or swan as it lands on the water.

I made the following recording last weekend at Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve in the south of Scotland. The recording was made just after 7am, a short time before sunrise. I was hearing lots of vocalisations from ducks, geese and waders but some of my favourite sounds were the whirring of wings or the splashing of ducks landing in the water. I love the feeling of the movement of birds that these sounds evoke.


So this is a project that is concerned with every kind of sound that a bird makes and I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences of these ‘other birds sounds’ through the contribute section of the website.


The sound microscope and the whippoorwill effect | The sound of spring

The sound microscope and the whippoorwill effect

January 16, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 6:16 pm

Recently I was sent a CD released by Smithsonian Folkways called The Birds World of Song: Listening through a Sound Microscope to Birds around a Maryland Farmhouse. The CD was first released in 1961 and made by Hudson and Sandra Ansley. It’s a fascinating listen and you can hear brief samples and purchase the CD here.

So what is a ‘sound microscope’ and what sort of effects does using one have on how we hear birds? According to the sleeve notes by Hudson Ansley,

A two speed tape recorder is a sound microscope. By recording at high speed and playing back at half speed, the effect is to magnify the song, or extend it over twice the length of tape.

The microscope magnifies not in size or volume but in time. By slowing down the recordings more detail can be discerned by human ears. The Ansleys used this technique to write bird song in musical notation and to compare different songs in more detail than would be possible with recordings made at a normal speed. Perhaps most significantly, they used the sound microscope to try to understand how birds sound to each other. Could birds hear the detail that the sound microscope revealed?

The first two tracks on the record consist of recordings made in March and June, with most of the songs slowed down. The sounds are strangely disorienting at first, and are rather reminiscent of the whistles of the Clangers, for those that remember them. These are followed by four tracks of analysis by Hudson Ansley, in which the elements of each song are examined and compared with others. He argues that we are unable to take in the bursts of sound in bird song because our cochlea is different to a bird’s. “The twitter we hear as bird song is sheer distortion,” he claims, but by slowing down the sound we are better able to deal with the complexity of sound that reaches our ears.

The final track, ‘Mockingbird’, introduces a discussion of how birds hear other birds. Northern mockingbirds are able to mimic all the other birds in the area with great accuracy. One of these local birds is the whippoorwill, whose song sounds to us rather like its three-note onomatapoeic name. But when the song of the whippoorwill is slowed down, it becomes clear that the song consists of five rather than three notes. So how many notes does the mockingbird sing when it mimics a whippoorwill? As the sound microscope reveals, the mockingbird sings five notes too. Ansley argues that this shows that the mockingbird hears the notes that we are unable to discern – what Ansley terms ‘the whippoorwill effect’. The sound microscope thus furnishes us with an experience of sound akin to a bird’s.

In listening to this recording, I’m reminded of the artist Marcus Coates‘ piece ‘Dawn Chorus’, in which recordings of birds are slowed down to a speed that humans can more readily imitate. He then asked singers to sing these slowed down versions and then speeded them back up so that they sounded like the original bird. You can see an example of this here, where there’s also a clip of the slow singing. Coates is interested in human-animal relations and in ‘Dawn Chorus’ he encourages us to think about these relations and about what it is to be human. This harks back to Hudson Ansley’s sleeve notes to The Bird’s World of Song in which he argues,

We decline to hew to a line that separates man from other animals, nor do we see any reason to draw a qualitative distinction between bird song and man-made music.

I made my own ‘sound microscope’ using the free sound editing programme Audacity and used it to listen to some crossbills I recorded last week. The first recording is at normal speed and includes one crossbill giving an excitement call (the low churping that sounds a bit like a blackbird) and another singing (including the repeated ‘tee-chur’ phrase that sounds like, and probably is, mimicry of a great tit).

The second recording is the same recording slowed down to -75%. The great tit mimicry now sounds rather like a cuckoo.

The work of both Coates and the Ansleys suggests that our experience of life is not totally contrasting with birds but is somewhat slower.

Thanks to Julian for sending me the CD.

The sound of spring

January 14, 2008

Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:49 pm

First of all, a happy New Year to all readers. It should be a very busy 2008 on the Listening to Birds project.

We’re still enveloped in the depths of winter here in the northeast of Scotland but the days are beginning to draw out and the first signs, and sounds, of spring are in the air. Over Christmastime I was down in the rather mild English Midlands and the relatively warm weather was encouraging a few birds to sing. During the autumn and early winter the only birds I’d heard singing here in Aberdeen were robins and wrens but down south goldcrests, mistle thrushes and dunnocks were also tempted into song.

But it’s not just the sound of birds singing that marks the coming of spring. Once or twice, even in the grip of some fierce winter storms, I’ve heard the brief burst of an oystercatcher over town. We see them along the coast here all winter, but as spring gets closer they start prospecting nest sites further inland and can be heard overhead, often at night-time. And for some time now the herring gulls that nest on the rooves below my flat have been returning to their nest sites periodically and calling to one another with that familiar seaside cry. I look forward to being regularly awoken as the days lengthen. Here’s one I recorded last week, with the thrum of Aberdeen harbour in the background.

Some birds just seem to sound summery whatever the season. Here’s a flock of goldfinches I recored twittering above the traffic in Torry in December.

The lightness of their call somehow seems to evoke a feeling of sunny days and flower-filled meadows, even when the surroundings are anything but.

Hearing these sounds appear as the birds’ lives journey through their annual cycle is to me less about phenology, the scientific study of these first appearances, and more about the feeling those sounds give of life progressing, both for birds and for humans.

If you’d like to tell me about your own sounds of spring then you can post your experience through the contribute section of the website.


Robins and the meaning of bird song | Wigeon, the wild and the sight of sound | A Patriotic Bullfinch? | Atlas work and listening | Composing with birds | Madagascan bird recordings from the British Library

Robins and the meaning of bird song

December 19, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 9:58 pm

The theme of bird sounds has reappeared in the Guardian’s Country Diary with Paul Evans’ paean to the song of the robin. There are a couple of aspects to Evans’ piece that particularly struck me. The first is the timeless question of what a bird’s singing means, of what message it might carry. Songs can carry all kinds of meanings for us, and we might speculate, as Evans does, on what they mean to the bird. But perhaps the singing doesn’t really mean anything at all. It doesn’t carry a message but, like any music, gives form to feeling. Perhaps which of these alternatives we prefer might depend on whether we think of bird song as music or language. Secondly, Evans finishes his piece by suggesting that, whatever the song might mean to the robin, it marks a means through which our world and his are drawn together. The music of birds becomes the music of our lives too.

Wigeon, the wild and the sight of sound

December 18, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:20 pm

It may be just coincidence but there have been two short articles in the past few days in the British press about wigeon, one by Mark Cocker in the Guardian’s Country Diary and one by Simon Barnes in the Times. Both mention the ducks sharp whistling call and how this evokes a sense of wildness and space. Cocker writes,

The whole cycle of action resolved into just two basic sounds – the high, clear whistling that we can easily imitate but never capture in speech. The bird’s old local names – whim, whewer, whew and smee – convey our attempts but little of the falling notes’ alchemical powers. In concert wigeon calls are somehow the sounds of the cold and the ice blue and the huge empty spaces.

Barnes goes a step further with,

Contact with the wild world gives a positive charge to your life. The whistling of wigeon in a place of desolation is an empowerment, nothing less.

Something about the shrill, piercing sound of the wigeon clearly brings us this sense of space and grandeur that both authors describe, a feeling that it’s harder to gain from the ‘vulgar quacking’ of a mallard or its domestic descendants. It’s this thrill of the rushing, whistling mass of a great flock of wigeon that Barnes is thinking of when he advocates the virtues of ‘contact with the wild world’. But what, I wonder, counts as ‘contact’ in this sense? Does it have to be a grand spectacle or can it be something smaller, more mundane – the herring gull crying from the rooftops, the blackbird singing out its mellifluous notes from the garden? Perhaps Barnes would agree that these are wild too, but I think the emphasis should be less about what we have contact with and more towards what we look and listen for. As the historian William Cronon (1996) has written, there are many problems inherent in creating a grand spectacle of wilderness as a contrast to our all too human and technology-bound lives. The desolate wilderness as the anti-human world of pure nature sets us at once outside of that which we seek. We can have contact with this world but we can never be a part of it. The antidote to this, Cronon argues, if we are still to gain from the positive effects of engaging with non-humans, is to perceive the wildness, rather than wilderness, in our everyday lives. An experience of wildness is one of perception rather than one created for us to make contact with.

I’m more taken with Cocker’s attention to the difficulties of perception, of distinguishing all that is going on. Here, attuning to the experience is as much about appreciating what we can’t sense as what we can, like the flock of golden plovers in the distance where we can see a sound being made without hearing it. The movements of light that we see give onto an anticipation of the movement of air that produces sound and through our experience of being in the world, through our skill at perceiving and our imagination, we can hear and see what we sometimes cannot sense.

My local flock of wigeon is rather small. They spend the winter – perhaps 50 or 100 strong – on a small loch right next to the A956. The traffic coming in and out of Aberdeen thunders past and the whistling and flurries of wings are less emphatic than those great masses in East Anglia that Cocker and Barnes describe. But the whistling still cuts through the rumbling engines, a wildness that can be experienced by anyone attuned to it.

Cronon, W. 1996. The trouble with wilderness; or, getting back to the wrong nature. In Uncommon Ground (ed) W. Cronon. London: W.W. Norton.

A Patriotic Bullfinch?

December 10, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 5:51 pm

I’ve just read a piece on the BBC News website about the reinstatement of a grave to commemorate a Bullfinch that could sing the national anthem. The story reminds me that it was quite common for Bullfinches to be trained to sing tunes, and song books and special pipes called ‘bird flageolets’ were even produced with this purpose in mind. Bullfinches are not particularly noted for their singing, which is very quiet and unobtrusive, but they’re very good at learning songs, something that was appreciated by 18th and 19th century bird keepers. In Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey’s wonderful book Birds Britannica they quote a letter that Lord Chesterfield sent to his son in 1740:

Bullfinches, you must know, have no natural note of their own, and never sing, unless taught; but will learn tunes better than any other birds. This they do by attention and memory; and you may observe, that, while they are taught, they listen with great care, and never jump about and kick their heels (Cocker & Mabey 2005: 456)

This view that only man could provide Bullfinches with their song is echoed in Lady Lawton’s poem to her beloved Bullie:

God gave thee thine beauty, man gave thee thy song.
Such perfection combined do few bullies belong.

But Bullfinches do have a song, and it’s actually rather complex and varies a great deal between individuals. The father of modern avian bioacoustics W.H. Thorpe (1961: 87) argued that Bullfinches are so skilled at learning different songs because individual variation is critical to the function of singing in Bullfinches. Bullfinches pair for life and their singing, Thorpe argued, is more concerned with pair bonding and coordinating the timing of breeding than with territoriality. It follows from this that greater flexibility in song facilitates individual recognition, which is useful for pair bonding but less useful for intra-specific territoriality. One presumes then that Lady Lawton’s Bullfinch sang ‘God save the Queen’ as a result of its training rather than patriotic fervour.

Cocker, M. & Mabey, R. 2005 Birds Britannica London: Chatto & Windus
Thorpe, W.H. 1961 Bird-song; the biology of vocal communication and expression in birds Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Atlas work and listening

December 9, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 8:59 pm

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) recently launched a new Bird Atlas project for the UK and Ireland. The new atlas will map different bird species and will rely largely on volunteers to carry out survey work. One of the main ways in which the surveying for the atlas is done is through Timed Tetrad Visits (TTVs). Each volunteer is assigned various ‘tetrads’, which are 2×2 km squares. They then make four timed one or two hour visits to the tetrad in winter and summer and count the birds they see and hear.

Last weekend I did my first TTVs in two tetrads along the lower reaches of the River Don in Aberdeen. Doing the survey involves using ears as much as eyes, and I became very conscious that my hearing skills were being tested to a much great degree than during ‘normal’ birding. Most times when I go birding, I’m looking and listening for birds that are out of the ordinary in some way or another. An effect of this is that I tend to filter out the commoner birds, wonderful though they are. It’s not so much that I don’t hear these commoner birds, it’s that I sometimes don’t register hearing them; I don’t consciously tell myself what I can hear. This is a kind of ‘unconscious identification’ that is probably important in all sorts of areas of perception. We perhaps only realise we’re doing it when we suddenly find what we were unconsciously listening out for – by hearing something different, we realise we were listening all the time.

But surveying for the atlas requires that every bird, heard or seen, is registered not just consciously but in pen and ink on the pages of a notepad. Last weekend I found it surprisingly hard work to spend four hours registering and attempting to identify every bird I found. There aren’t too many birds singing at the moment here in Aberdeen, aside from lots of Robins and a few Wrens, but there were lots of subtle calls that tested my skill at identifying common vocalisations to the full. I realised how hard it can be to distinguish between the calls of various tits, most of which give some rather similar high pitched twittering calls, as well as a few more distinctive sounds. Knowing whether a call was a great tit or blue tit could sometimes be a challenge. Likewise song thrush and robin both give some rather soft contact calls that can sound rather similar. Could I tell the difference? Sometimes the answer was no.

So if you’re doing atlas work in the UK and Ireland at the moment, or if you’re doing some other kind of bird surveying, I’d be interested in hearing about the role that listening plays in the survey work and about how you think surveying influences your listening skills.

Composing with birds

December 6, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 1:34 pm

I’m slowly working my way through the 600 or so emails and contributions I’ve had in the past week, so apologies again if I’ve not replied to you yet. Be patient, particularly if you had a specific enquiry!

One of the contributions that I particularly enjoyed came from Neil Horne in Sydney, Australia. He’s an artist who works with computers and he’s designed some interactive java software that enables different bird sounds to be combined into a composition. The ‘Sky Music’ programme was particularly useful. Neil makes some interesting observations about the different responses to the programme:

Our approach is from the perspective of the aesthetics of bird calls… Birders hear birds differently. When the composing software was trialled by birders, they were reluctant to combine sounds and rhythms, but were more interested in identifying birds. They could only hear it as a quiz. Computer specialists on the other hand with a music background were happy to compose. Where we recorded the black cockatoos, there were people sitting at picnic tables talking who did not hear the amazing performance, or behaved as if they didn’t.

Although I’m a birder myself, I didn’t see it so much as a quiz because I’m unfamiliar with the sounds of eastern Australian birds. Instead I was able to play around with the sounds and rhythms. It’s quite a different way to think about and to hear the vocalisations of birds. It helped me to understand what Juana Molina means by the different loops of sound made by duetting birds combining in different ways despite repetition. Have a go at playing two different recordings together and see how the sound changes as it goes on. Thanks to Neil for letting me know about his work.

Madagascan bird recordings from the British Library

December 5, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:23 pm

The British Library has released a CD of Madagascan bird sounds. You can hear some of these beautiful and startling recordings on the BBC website and at the British Library page. It’s perhaps not surprising that these birds sound so different to anything else when many belong to families unique to the island.


Why I’m recording birds | Juana Molina on how birds influence her music | A bird sound biography | Welcome

Thanks to everyone

November 29, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 4:53 pm

The project was launched today and there’s already been an amazing response. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to post through the contribute page or has contacted me directly. I’m still working my way through the comments but I’ve read about some remarkable experiences already. I might not be able to respond to everyone individually but all of the contributions are greatly appreciated.

Why I’m recording birds

November 28, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 7:57 pm

One of the activities that I’ll be engaged in throughout the Listening to Birds project is making recordings of birds. I have no previous expertise in this area but it’s something I’ve wanted to learn to do for a long time, simply for my own interest. But making recordings is, I think, going to be significant for research in a number of ways.

  1. It’s useful to have recordings of birds for illustrative purposes, not least on this blog.
  2. Recordings are integral to many of the activities that use bird sounds I’m interested in investigating. They’re essential to scientific studies of bird sounds; birders use recordings to help them to identify and see birds; musicians and artists use recordings in all kinds of ways in their work. By understanding the ways in which recordings are made with these different ends in mind I hope to gain insights into how people use bird sounds and how technology influences how they hear them.
  3. I’m interested in the skill of recording, and it’s this that I’d like to say more about here. I want to learn how to use the technology and the skills needed to get different kinds of recordings. I’m also interested in understanding how that process of learning influences how I hear birds.

So where am I at with recording at the moment? Well, I’ve acquired some equipment. My first recorder, and the one with which I’m most familiar, is a Remembird. This is quite a new product but potentially represents a revolution in bird sound recording. The recorder is very small and fits on most pairs of binoculars. It has a voice recorder for notes but also has a microphone for recording bird sounds. The results can be quite impressive, particularly given that they are achieved at the touch of a button. I’m interested to see how popular these recorders become with birders, and the effects that might have on how people go about birding. There certainly hasn’t been anything else as portable as Remembird that makes recordings as easily and of such high quality. Here’s a recording I made of a yellow-browed warbler in Shetland this autumn, always an exciting bird to hear in the autumn:

More recently, I’ve become the proud owner of a Fostex FR2 LE digital recorder. This is a fairly small device that records sounds onto a compact flash card. To go with this, I’ve got a Sennheiser ME66 microphone. I’ve used this set up a couple of times so far, so I’m only just beginning to figure out how to use it.

All of this technology, even the very simple Remembird, requires some skill to use. More than that, I needed certain other skills in order to acquire the right equipment in the first place. What did I have to know about or be able to do in order to know that these were good devices to use? In my case, this was mostly done by scouring the Internet, particularly online forums such as BirdForum, where advice about what equipment to buy can be found or enquiries made. With some idea of what I wanted to do, I could find out about products that fitted with my aims. This skill of knowing where to find information seems rather humble and is presumably shared with anybody reading this page, but it was a necessary prerequisite for acquiring and using technology.

On using the digital recorder, I’m struck by how straightforward it seems to anyone already familiar with a digital camera. The screen layout and selection of menus and settings operates in much the same way, only with the settings being for sound rather than light. In this case, possessing skills developed through using one technology can be readily translated to another. In making recordings, I’ve begun to notice sounds or aspects of sounds that I hadn’t noticed before. Background noise is foregrounded, and distances become critical. The wind becomes a factor in much the same way that light is an essential consideration to photographers and even with the protection of a windshield, I’ve been struck by how easily the microphone picks up the coarse ruffling of a strong breeze. By experimenting with settings, particularly for microphone gain, I’m starting to appreciate the effects that these can have on what the recorder ‘hears’. I begin to attune my own hearing to what I understand of the sensory organ that is the microphone and recorder.

Something that I’m already very aware of is how much simpler my task of recording birds is than it might have been even a handful of years ago. Now there are small digital recorders that can be taken almost anywhere, or even fitted onto binoculars in the case of Remembird. Information about bird sound recording and the equipment to use is readily available via the Internet. In the past, recording was a more complex and cumbersome affair involving reel-to-reel tape recorders and even, if one travels far enough back in time, wax cylinders. Complementing the digital recorders are an array of computer programmes for editing and analysing sound. Many of these are freely available for download, such as Audacity, Syrinx and Raven. So the possibilities for easily recording and analysing bird sounds are very much greater for the amateur than they were even at the turn of the century and it’s these possibilities and the skills that emerge with them that I intend to explore through making recordings.

Juana Molina on how birds influence her music

Andrew Whitehouse @ 10:45 am

One of my favourite musicians is the Argentinian singer Juana Molina. I love her work for lots of reasons but I’ve always been struck by the role that bird sounds play in her songs. Sometimes she includes recordings of South American birds on her records as a sort of accompaniment or like a separate instrument. But in this video profile she reveals a more complex relationship between her music and birds when she discusses her response to the singing of Rufous Horneros, a common bird in Argentina that has a complex duetting song in which both male and female sing together. The discussion of birds starts about six minutes in, although the rest of the profile is well worth watching.

On Juana’s Myspace page, she discusses the influence of bird sounds on her music further:

“When I started to write the songs for this record Son, 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; its 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 develop for the song. Verses are alike, but never the same (rios seco, no seas antipática) other times I chose to sing a repetitive melody. What changes here and moves randomly is, for example, a keyboard. It is like overlapping two different loops, with no synchronicity at all. One very rhythmic and the other one more loose. When you play both, at the same time, the loose loop will provoke a changing harmony, because their beats will never be in the same place. This causes a moving harmony. During the tours, I also applied my new ideas to the old songs, that’s why, when I got back home, I recorded the first thing that came to mind using these new ideas. In October, when I sat down to put all I had for the record together I had the huge and pleasant surprise that I almost had the record done. Son is a step forward on the same path I started with Segundo and followed with Tres Cosas.”

Many songs have been written in which the lyrics refer to bird sounds, and there are many uses of bird song recordings in music. It’s also quite common for music to imitate bird sounds. But, more unusually, Molina seems to consider the songs of birds like the hornero as influencing her own music in much the same way that she might speak of another musician influencing her work. She is not trying to replicate a hornero, but she is trying to create sound that moves in the same way.

I’m also struck that she refers to birds as having ‘a particular singing’ rather than a particular song. This emphasises the bird actively singing in a particular style in response to what is going on around it rather than passively acting out a pre-designed song. Her description of her own music as a ‘melodic drawing’ adds to this sense of music, both avian and human, as being almost like a kind of doodle in sound, the lines and loops intersecting with one another in surprising ways and the sound constantly moving like lines being drawn across a page.

A bird sound biography

November 19, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 5:33 pm

Like all good anthropologists, I’d like to begin this blog with a bit of biographical context. Since the Listening to Birds project is all about the role that bird sounds play in people’s lives, it seems prudent to start by describing my own experiences.

I’ve been interested in birds for most of my life and began birding, in a fairly concerted fashion, at the age of six. Like many beginners, I learnt to recognise most birds visually long before I learnt their vocalisations. After I’d been birding a year or two, I recall the leader of the local Young Ornithologist’s Club (YOC) group asking the members to write down how many species of bird they knew by sound. I’ve no idea how many I came up with, but I remember finding it rather difficult to do, even though by that stage I knew lots of birds by sight.

My earliest memories of bird sounds were of easy to recognise species: the song of the Cuckoo, the thrum of a Mute Swan’s wings beating, a mewling Buzzard on holidays to Devon and the electric ‘peewit’ of Lapwings. It took me longer to learn the more complex songs of even the most familiar of songbirds but a few were relatively easy to pick up. On my walk home from school across an area of rough grassland I used to hear Skylarks singing high up above and would strain my neck to catch sight of them. The Skylark was the emblem of my school, which was in the new town part of Northampton. We were told that when the new housing was built on farmland in the early 1970s the Skylarks disappeared from most areas and so it came to represent the great, but rather ambivalent, change that had taken place in the landscape. There were still some around when I was a kid, usually in areas set aside for building, but these days they’ve disappeared as a breeding bird and I’d have to travel further a field to hear their song ascending above me.

It wasn’t until my teens that I started to pay more attention to the sounds I was hearing. A pivotal moment came in October half-term, perhaps in the mid-1980s when I decided to have a look for two birds that I very rarely seemed to see: Siskin and Redpoll. I suspected that both of these small finches were reasonably common around where I lived. Other people seemed to notice them quite regularly but I didn’t. It seemed that knowing their calls was very helpful in locating and identifying them – particularly with birds flying overhead, which could be difficult to identify visually. So I set off to look around the extensive areas of trees that had been planted when the new town was built. Many of which were alders and Redpolls and Siskins both feed on alder mast during the autumn and winter. I hoped that by checking areas where the trees grew I would find the birds. The results were almost instantly successful and that week I saw both species almost daily and sometimes in large numbers. Some were feeding in the trees but there were more bounding overhead in tight flocks, and the only thing giving away their identity were their now very distinctive calls: the ringing ‘tsu’ of the Siskins and the rhythmic, buzzing ‘chi-chi’ of the Redpolls. What I realised from this experience was that learning bird sounds would help me to see and identify more birds, and as a birder who wanted to do just that, it was a lesson well-heeded.

A great leap forward both in my skill at recognising bird sounds and in my sensitivity to them came when I went to work in my late teens at a nature reserve, Strumpshaw Fen in the Norfolk Broads. Now it became my job to be able to identify different birds and to recognise different types of call because I needed to do this to help with monitoring bird populations on the reserve. Along with many of the other trainees who worked there at the time, I was very aware of my inability to recognise the songs of some quite familiar birds. What was interesting was that in some cases I had never even heard the species sing. A good example was Treecreeper, a woodland bird I was very accustomed to seeing. I also knew the dry wispy call note but had never heard one sing. I listened to recordings and heard a sound that was totally unfamiliar, a sort of thin but jaunty twitter. Perhaps they don’t sing very often, I wondered, but as I began to survey the birds on the reserve during the spring I heard them all over the place. It wasn’t so much that I’d never heard Treecreepers singing before but that I hadn’t noticed hearing them. Hearing, it became apparent to me then, wasn’t so much a passive reception of sound by the ears but an active process that involved attending to aspects of the world around me. Much of what I heard was what I listened for.

During my time at Strumpshaw, I did lots of survey work in the woods and marshes and this meant that many of the birds stayed out of sight but not out of earshot. The sounds of those places were remarkable: the geese flying out of their roost to graze the marshes at dawn, the Tawny Owls hooting and screeching, the strange squeak and gurgle of a Woodcock on its ‘roding’ display flight, the shotgun burst of a Cetti’s Warbler, the sky filling with noisy Rooks and Jackdaws on their way to roost, the woodland birds finding their voice after a long winter and, above all, the incredible sound of a reed bed full of warblers on an early morning in May.

After a few months learning, I started to teach other staff how to identify bird sounds for doing survey work and was impressed at how quickly most people seemed to pick it up. I’d never really been taught bird identification myself. No one had ever taken me aside and helped me to learn in a formal and concerted way. I had always just ‘picked things up’ as and when I needed, sometimes following the example of others or getting pointers from them but never anything more than that. But, eventually, I’d learnt how to listen and ever since then I’ve made a point of paying more attention to bird sounds. When I travel abroad I still struggle to learn sounds as quickly as I can learn to recognise unfamiliar birds by sight. Perhaps this is because the sort of preparation I do is mostly based on looking through the pages of a field guide. But I gradually come to recognise plenty of sounds and can still remember a few of them: the shrill cries of Killdeer in America, the sewing machine hum of River Warblers in Poland, the thin wheeze of Red-throated Pipits in Turkey, the alarm clock call of a Crested Barbet in South Africa and the ‘dropping bomb’ sound of a Sharpbill in Brazil.

So this is a brief summary of my own experiences, but they raise many of the questions that will be under scrutiny during the Listening to Birds project. Why do we find bird sounds so difficult to learn and remember? What can make it easier to learn them? Why are some sounds easier to remember than others? How do we come to notice bird sounds in the first place? How do certain sounds come to evoke time, place and season? I’ll be exploring these and other questions through the research I’ll be doing over the next few years and will be posting my thoughts as I go along.


November 15, 2007

Andrew Whitehouse @ 2:49

Welcome to the ‘Listening to Birds Blog’. I’ll be posting regular updates about the project here, as well as ideas, recordings and your contributions. Feel free to leave a comment.