Skip to main content

Soundscape ecology and what listening can teach us about nature

This is a remarkable video about how scientists can use sound to diagnose the health of ecosystems. I highly encourage you to watch it, full screen, with no other windows open to distract you. Listen to what he's saying--it's quite incredible.

July 18 was World Listening Day, and lately I have come across a number of sound-related articles, activities, and experiences that have made my ears more attuned to the world around me.

Yesterday at camp, we did an activity called Graveyard, which can also be called Sit Spot. Each child and counselor found a space around a pond where they could stay silent and observe. We sat for twenty minutes, using our eyes and ears to become attuned to the pond. Our silence and immobility allowed birds, dragonflies, and frogs to return to the pond as though we weren't there. One camper told me a frog had hopped onto her arm as she sat silently observing its journey around the pond. Dragonflies helicoptered their ways across the water. Birds rustled in the tule, flying swifty to high tree branches and swooping to eat flies around the pond.

Next time we participate in this activity--or when I do so on my own--I will pay special attention to the sounds I hear and try to decipher what they might be saying about the ecosystem or habitat. Once during an all-day field day class at UC Santa Cruz, we ventured outside to a meadow for a lesson on deep nature connection. We had just that morning learned about how bird sounds can mean a number of things, including warning, hunger/crying, mating calls, and other things. We were seated near a garden adjacent to some woods that bordered the meadow. It was late afternoon and we had been immersed in nature activities and discussions all day. The guest lecturer speaking that afternoon suddenly paused in her presentation and turned, pointing to some bushes where a bobcat stalked out, as though he knew we were waiting for him to appear. She had heard the birds squawking in the nearby trees and figured something was on its way. The lovely little cat strutted down the meadow, and we all moved slowly to get a better view. Talk about using your ears to identify something in nature! She was so attuned to the world around her--even while lecturing--that she sensed the presence of the bobcat even with her back toward it.

I didn't snap a photo of the bobcat, but here is a photo from class that day. The bobcat walked onto the scene behind the instructor on the left (the fantastic David Shaw, of Common Ground Center). The guest lecturer on the right was the one who heard and then spotted the bobcat.

Bird sounds don't always indicate a bobcat is coming or that something amazing is about to happen, but oftentimes it can indicate something to us if we're paying attention. Don't forget that you have ears and that they are meant to hear things--not just your iPod or traffic noises! Go outside, count the number of things you hear, listen carefully for the birds and insects. Pay attention to geophony, biophony, and anthrophony (watch the video for more on this). Perhaps you'll hear the honk of migrating geese (one of my absolute favorite sounds that I associate with childhood) and get a glimpse of them flying overhead. Perhaps you'll hear a squirrel on a fence post or tree, nibbling away. Maybe a nearby creek will serve as a background sound. It may be that you have to wait until the evening, when the crickets chirp... perhaps you have to walk to a nearby park if your neighborhood is too noisy from anthrophony to hear any of the local biophony...

What can you learn from these sounds? What do they mean to you, and how do we protect them and their sources from anthrophony and human destruction?

Thanks for reading--keep on listening!

Green Gal