The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

November 29, 2007

Thanks to everyone

Filed under: welcome — 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.

November 28, 2007

Why I’m recording birds

Filed under: Methods — 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:

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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

Filed under: Music — Tags: , , — 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.

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.

November 15, 2007


Filed under: welcome — Tags: — Andrew Whitehouse @ 2:49 pm

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.

The University of Aberdeen