The Listening to Birds Blog

Song Thrush by Nigel Pye //

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.

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.

The University of Aberdeen