The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

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.

The University of Aberdeen