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.

April 24, 2009


Filed under: biographical — Tags: — 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.

April 23, 2009

Some thoughts on connecting with bird song

Filed under: biographical — 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.

November 19, 2007

A bird sound biography

Filed under: biographical — Tags: , , — 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. Your comments and contributions are most welcome.

The University of Aberdeen