The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

May 15, 2009

Listening to birds in Australia

Filed under: biographical,Perception — 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.

August 15, 2008

Crakes, objects and sounds

Filed under: Perception — 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:

The excitable trilling of rufous-sided crake;

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The wonderful duetting song of ash-throated crake;

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And the shrill squealing of their near relative the blackish rail;

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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.

June 5, 2008

So what did I learn?

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , , , — 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.

May 5, 2008

How to learn bird sounds at home

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , , — 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 this 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.

February 22, 2008

Life in Mono

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , , , — 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.

February 14, 2008

Auditory illusions

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , — 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.

February 12, 2008

Birdwatching and heard listing

Filed under: Perception — 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.

January 16, 2008

The sound microscope and the whippoorwill effect

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , , , , , — 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).

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

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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.

January 14, 2008

The sound of spring

Filed under: Perception,Uncategorized — Tags: , — 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.

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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.

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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.

December 18, 2007

Wigeon, the wild and the sight of sound

Filed under: Perception — Tags: , , , — 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.

The University of Aberdeen