What it says I don’t know, but it sings a loud song: Reflections on birdsong, meaning, and place

Today’s blog comes from Eleanor Ratcliffe, a PhD student in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey. Her doctoral research focuses on the psychological benefits of listening to natural sounds, and is funded by the ESRC’s South East Doctoral Training Centre, the National Trust, and the Surrey Wildlife Trust. The title of this piece is drawn from Answer To A Child’s Question by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Many of us will have felt compelled to take a brisk walk outdoors over the festive period. When doing so, what sounds did you hear around you?

A soundscape is the auditory equivalent of a landscape; it is the aural environment that you find yourself surrounded by, no matter where you are. It can be a café’s rich undertones of laughter and chatter, the howl of a windswept moor, or a forest’s backdrop of birdsong and water. You might even notice ‘soundmarks’: auditory versions of landmarks that help to characterise a location. These sounds can help us form attachments to places because they are part of our sensory experience of what is there. Soundscapes can generate a sense of place and of presence, or ‘really being there’, even if you’re not able to see what’s around you. They can also change the way we think about what we do see; for example, hearing the sounds of nature can enhance our experience of the natural environment. Conversely, when sounds are absent from nature it can feel like we’re missing out on something.

Male blackbird near Bradworthy, Devon ©National Trust Images

Male blackbird near Bradworthy, Devon ©National Trust Images

When we think about what can be heard in natural soundscapes, birdsong occurs again and again. We hear it in parks, in woodlands, and even in city streets and back gardens. Yet birdsong does not have to be associated only with where we hear it: the sounds of birds can generate memories of different times, places, and seasons. Some associations may be personal, such as blackbirds and long summer evenings, or a link between a particular bird and a time or place from childhood. Other associations may be cultural and shared between many people through folklore and stories, often about events that are constants in one’s life: the swallow and the coming of summer, or the kookaburra’s laugh and the rising sun. Even these can shift and change, though; in his book Birdscapes, Jeremy Mynott describes how British perceptions of the robin and his cheery red breast have changed profoundly over time from traditional associations with death and sacrifice. What one sound in nature means to a person, or a culture, is not immutable.

The personal, cultural, and social nature of these associations with birds gives us an important insight into how sounds and sense of place might interact. My favourite example of this comes from living in East London for several years; now, hearing the sound of herring gulls reminds me not of the seaside but of the vibrancy of Whitechapel Market. It’s a less than romantic association, but a fond and vivid one. It serves to remind me that we interpret what we hear in our own way, and that the ties that bind sounds and place together are, like us, individual. In the end, the best way to forge a beautiful memory of birdsong – or of any other sound – is to get out there and experience it yourself.

There are many ways that you can find out more about this fascinating topic.  The World Soundscape Projectwas established in the late 1960s with the goal to create a harmonious relationship between human communities and their sonic environments. Listening to birds: an anthropological approach to bird sound is a project investigating how people perceive, identify and relate to bird sounds. There is more information about birds, such as the Kookaburra, on the Australia Walkabout Wildlife website.

There are a number of articles that explain more about this topic, such as: R. Murray Schafer’s, “The Sounding City”; P. Turner, I. McGregor, S. Turner and F. Carroll’s ‘Evaluating soundscapes as a means of creating a sense of place’; L.M. Anderson, B.E. Mulligan, L.S. Goodman and H.Z. Regen’s ‘Effects of Sounds on Preferences for Outdoor Settings’.

3 thoughts on “What it says I don’t know, but it sings a loud song: Reflections on birdsong, meaning, and place

  1. Hi. Just wondered if anyone has done any research around the effect of road noise on the decibel level of birdsong. Recently the A3 was diverted via a tunnel around the devils punch bowl, hindhead Surrey, and in the resulting sudden disappearance of traffic noise, I think I am hearing much louder birdsong. Is this an illusion or an evolution?

    • Hi Kris. Thanks for this – a really interesting question.

      We’ve done a bit of digging and found that there have been a few studies looking at how urban noise affects birds and birdsong. In 2006, a study showed that urban birds sang shorter, faster, higher-pitched songs than rural birds, so that they can be heard over traffic noise (http://news.nationalgeographic.co.uk/news/2006/12/061206-birds-cities.html), and other studies back this up (e.g. http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1754/20122798 and http://www.ornisfennica.org/pdf/early/Huffeldt.pdf). It’s worth listening to the audio on this research project by the University of Aberystwyth too to hear the difference (http://users.aber.ac.uk/rmm/urbansong.htm). Perhaps most worrying is the report that birds with too low a frequency/pitch simply can’t be found by roads because they can’t compete!

      Our Wildlife and Countryside Advisor for London & the South East suggests that birds living beside the A3 might have been singing louder to compete with traffic noise, so it may take some time for the trait to die out. But he says that because female blackbirds prefer males with more complex songs with a wide range of phrases, now that the noise has died down, it may be that males that sing ‘better’ will be chosen over those that simply shout the loudest!

      Hope this helps 🙂

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