The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

February 28, 2008

Listening to Birds on ASR tomorrow

Filed under: Music — 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. You can listen online here.

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.

February 4, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 1, 2008

Why bird sounds?

Filed under: Methods — Tags: , , — 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.

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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 University of Aberdeen