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.

June 20, 2008

Travels and telly

Filed under: Research — Tags: , , , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 3:28 pm

First of all, I’ll be popping up on TV this Sunday on BBC1, being interviewed by Michaela Strachan for Countryfile. This is for a feature on bird song and it was recorded last month near Bristol.

Last week I visited Finland to attend the NightinGala conference in Järvenpää. The event was quite an interesting mixture of the science and music of bird song. I was also able to enjoy listening to birds in Finland, where to me the birds were a mixture of the familiar, the slightly familiar and the new.

Following the recent post about sound identification, I was confronted with some different problems of knowing to those I encountered in America. What I often found was that I was less confident about knowing even bird sounds that seemed familiar because of the different circumstances. Sometimes this was down to the birds singing with noticeably different ‘dialects’, and this was apparent with Chaffinch (as it usually is), Willow Warbler and Whitethroat. In all these cases, the birds were still easy to recognise but sometimes I was caught out. A Yellowhammer singing an abridged version of its song on the edge of a pine forest in Lapland had me confused for a while before I saw it. I found myself immediately thinking it sounded like a Yellowhammer but that it wasn’t quite right, so maybe it could be something else. This ‘something else’ factor was perhaps the main reason why I had trouble identifying sounds I’m otherwise familiar with. A Song Thrush singing deep in the forests of Lapland had me troubled, even though I ‘recognised’ it as having the familiar repeated structure. What bothered me was whether there were other birds in the northern forests that might sing in a similar way. I’m not very familiar with the songs of Fieldfare and Redwing, both of which breed in the area, so I felt that I needed to be sure I wasn’t hearing a variant of one of those species of thrush (and I was later to learn that there are a lot of variants in Redwing song!). In all these cases I was eventually able to be pretty confident of what bird was making the sound, but the problem was that I was unfamiliar with the context. In Britain, I can be much more certain of what I’m hearing because I’m also familiar with the other sounds I’m likely to hear in most places. In Finland I’m aware that there are birds that make sounds I don’t know, and maybe some of them sound like birds that I think know. What all this suggests is that ‘knowing’ a sound is made by a particular kind of bird is a very contingent knowing. Knowing a Song Thrush in your neighbourhood is one kind of knowing, but knowing it everywhere is another.

If I’d have stayed in Finland a little bit longer, I might have had the opportunity to travel over to the Russian border to hear the extraordinary sound of Europe’s first Swinhoe’s Snipe.

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 7, 2008

Screaming summer

Filed under: Interpretations,Uncategorized — Tags: , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 4:44 pm

Swifts are back, at least here in Aberdeen. They arrived, rather suddenly as they often do, on Monday and have been gathering and swirling above the city roof tops ever since. If I’m pushed I usually claim that swifts are my favourite birds, although dippers have a strong case too. Part of the reason why I think they’re so wonderful is that incredible screeching noise they make, a sound that seems so redolent of warm summer days. The arrival of swifts is perhaps the bird arrival that I look forward to the most, and come late summer I shall be keenly looking to see how long they stay on for.

Many people wrote to me about swifts and their associations. Andrew from Crowborough said:

I’ve listened to different birds since I was a child. The one I always listen out for is swifts. They don’t make a nice sound but I always associate their arrival with the beginning of summer.

Judith from Huntingdon adds:

Whenever I hear the sound of swifts screaming above during the summer, I am transported back to the garden of the house in which I was brought up in Southport, Lancashire

Melissa from London shares my enthusiasm:

The bird song I love the best is the scream of the swift, because of its associations with summer. I always watch out for them, and this year I heard them before I saw them, on my way in to work one day. It was a heart-lifting moment. In central London you do see them flying overhead, but usually very far up and not very audible. I love going away in summer, to Devon or the Lake District, somewhere where they scream and dive almost around your head. They stay such a short time, the beeping cries of the house martins lingering a bit longer.

And Philip from Preston has similar feelings:

The screaming of parties of swifts swooping down between the house tops is perhaps my favourite bird sound (it’s hardly a song!). Coupled with the spectacle of their flight, it is so exciting it makes me want to yelp with joy! And of course it tells us that spring will soon be summer or indeed that summer is already here (but not for long – the swifts stay for such a short time). May they always return – the thought of summer without them is unbearable.

I think this last quote suggests one of the reasons why swifts are so strongly associated with summer. Their presence so closely coincides with that season, arriving in early May and leaving in early to mid August. Like a typically British summer they’re brief and ephemeral but, with their needle-winged flight and screaming cries, full of effervescent life.

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.

April 11, 2008

Project update

Filed under: Research — Tags: , , , , — Andrew Whitehouse @ 9:38 am

There haven’t been too many updates to the blog lately so I thought I’d mention a few things I’ve been up to.


Some of you may have noticed my name cropping up in one or two publications lately. The May issue of BBC Wildlife features an article by me on responses to bird sounds, including a few excerpts from the stories people have sent me. I was also featured in last weekend’s edition of the Sunday Telegraph, including a few short notes on responses to particular birds that I, mostly, wrote. A lot of the current media interest seems to stem from the popularity of bird song radio and there may be a few other ‘media appearances’ in the near future, which I’ll keep you up to date on.

Writing and presentations

I’m currently working on an academic paper, the first to come from this project, which is drawn primarily from the hundreds of stories, experiences and thoughts sent to me through this website. I’ll be presenting versions of this paper on a couple of occasions in the near future. On Tuesday 22nd April I’ll be giving the departmental seminar in anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast. I’ll also be presenting at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference at Columbia University, New York City on Saturday 24th May in the session ‘Mundane Ideals’. Whilst I’m in America I’ll also be meeting with bird sound researchers at Cornell and Indiana, as well as hopefully listening to a few interesting birds.

Teaching and learning bird sound identification

One of the main aspects of the research is to look into how people make distinctions between the sounds of birds and how they come to put names to what they’re hearing. As well as considering my own ways of doing this, I’m going to be teaching people bird sound identification during the spring. If you live in the Aberdeen area and are interested in participating then feel free to get in touch. I’ll be saying more about what I’m learning and hoping to learn through this process over the coming weeks and months.


Contributions to the project are still more than welcome. You can send your experiences to me via the ‘Contribute’ page. I’m conscious that I haven’t used any of these contributions in the blog and so I’ll be rectifying that over the coming weeks. Enormous thanks again to everyone who has sent their experiences in.

March 22, 2008

An exhaltation of larks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Whitehouse @ 12:34 pm

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the beautiful and bird-rich northeast of Spain. There were plenty of birds singing in the various habitats I visited, and I had an interesting time trying to recognise the various sounds. Some of these were familiar from home, others were sounds I’ve heard on previous visits to continental Europe but which I don’t hear regularly. I was interested to discover which of these I could remember. Some were very obvious, such as the simple and insistent ‘sip-sip-sip’ of a zitting cisticola (or fan-tailed warbler, if you prefer). There were other sounds that were a bit harder to recall but which I recognised once I heard them, like the harsh ratchet-like call of a Sardinian warbler and the distinctive buzzy twittering of a serin, a sound that seems so redolent of warm sunny gardens in southern Europe.

But the finest spectacle of sound was in the drylands at El Planeron, just to the east of Zaragoza. Early morning here was cool with a lingering mist and the air was filled with singing larks, particularly the numerous lesser short-toed larks, together with thekla and calandra larks. Whenever I’m in open country like this, it strikes me that the way that birds sing is different to how they sing in more enclosed habitats such as woodland. Here the birds don’t find a discrete perch to sing from but instead they take to the air and their singing is a continuous stream of sound and not the well-mannered bursts and pauses of woodland birds. Here’s part of a recording I made at El Planeron.

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Interspersed amongst the relentless twittering of lesser short-toed larks is a rather different sound: a rising three-note song where the last note is strangely inflected. This is the song of the avian speciality of El Planeron, a Dupont’s lark. This is one of those birds that is perhaps most readily encountered as a sound. They sing much more from the ground than other larks and they are, as anyone who has ever tried to look for them will tell you, bewilderingly hard to catch sight of. You can hear one rather more clearly on this recording.

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Eventually I saw one rise up from the ground like the other larks and give a circling song flight high up above me. But when I think of a Dupont’s lark, what I think of is that strange three-note phrase that I heard almost continuously at El Planeron, emerging from what seemed like the landscape itself.

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.

The University of Aberdeen