conservation bioacoustics human dimensions urban ecology soundscape ecology public health

A World without Birdsong

What would the world be like if it weren’t for natural sounds? Are we facing an imminent extinction of the natural soundscape experience?

A Minor Bird

I have wished a bird would fly away

And not sing by my house all day;

Have clapped my hands at him from the door

When it seemed as if I could bear no more.

The fault must partly have been in me.

The bird was not to blame for his key.

Of course there must be something wrong

In wanting to silence any song. Robert Frost

Imagine a world without bird song. Without the bright song of the Chickadee, or the chorus of frogs, the roaring buzz of cicadas. For many people living in large cities, this is already a reality, and as many people move to cities, more and more will live with fewer natural sounds. This human disconnect from the natural “soundscape” (a given landscape of sound across space and through time) has far-reaching implications – from public health to wildlife conservation. As easy as it is to “tune out” this pressing issue, our most primal selves resonate with the power of natural sounds.

image alt text

Fig 1. Can you hear this roaring river? The wind sweeping through the canyon? (Photo from pixabay.com).

Ecologists, scientists who study the relationship between living things and their environment, have recently realized just how important soundscapes are to living creatures. A whole new field of ecology, soundscape ecology (or ecoacoustics) has been created to study how living things interact with sound[1]. The world of sound is made up of sounds produced by living things, non-living things such as wind or rain, and human things, such as cars. Countless species of animals, from the smallest insect to the largest Blue Whales “listen in” on the soundscape, and use it to communicate and to gather information about the world around them. Bats use extremely high pitched sounds in echolocation to find and catch moths at night with incredible accuracy[2]. Entire communities of birds “eavesdrop” on Chickadee calls in the eastern forests of the United States. When a Chickadee makes an alarm call to warn its family of hawks or owls, all songbirds and small mammals listen in and react by freezing in place or hiding[3].

image alt text

Fig 2. Nosy neighbors! Entire bird and mammal communities listen in on what Chickadees have to say. (Photo from flickr.com).

Ecologists are also using recordings of the sounds of nature to study soundscapes. New technologies such as digital remote sound recorders have allowed scientists to record sounds in remote locations for months at a time. They can even use GPS sound recorders arranged in a grid to find a sounds exact location. With these tools, a recent study in Michigan was able to show the changing environmental conditions and “health” (for example, diversity of wildlife) of a forest based on years of soundscape recordings[4].

image alt text

Fig 3. New technology such as these GPS-enabled microphones gives scientists the ability to “listen in” on the world around them. (Photo from listening earth reproduced with permission).

Natural sounds are not just important to wildlife, they are important for human well-being. People that live in cities experience a constant barrage of unpleasant noise – jackhammers, honking horns, and the dull roar of traffic. These sounds elevate stress, negatively affect sleep quality, and can even put adults at a higher risk of heart disease and other health issues[5]. People who are exposed to recordings of natural sounds become instantly less stressed and feel better[6]. Beyond a person’s health, exposure to natural sounds connects an individual with nature, and reminds them of the fundamental importance of wildlife. If everyone lives in cities, and natural sounds in cities are overwhelmed by human-created sounds, will people lose touch with wildlife? This justifies the importance of wildland sanctuaries in the hinterlands, in addition to greenspace in cities.

image alt text

Fig 4. Urban greenspaces can serve as an “acoustic oasis” in the big city. (Figure from pixabay.com).

It is critical that we conserve natural soundscapes in both wildlands and cities. In wildlands, this can be accomplished by placing limits on vehicle travel, speeds, and aircraft flyovers. People everywhere need easier means of mass transportation and access to state and national parks to experience the soothing sounds of nature. In cities, protecting and growing greenspaces such as city parks and street-side trees and gardens will encourage urban wildlife to prosper. Schoolchildren can be educated on the wonders of natural sounds. Citizens should continue to support the good work of the National Park Service Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division for their commitment in protection of these precious resources. Do we truly believe that “there must be something wrong in trying to silence any song”? Soundscapes are the “Canary in a coal mine” for the conservation and health of wildlands. If the Canary no longer sings, what will we do?

image alt text

Fig 5. Natural sounds are often awe inspiring! (Photo from Wikimedia commons).


[1]:Pijanowski, Bryan C., Almo Farina, Stuart H. Gage, Sarah L. Dumyahn, and Bernie L. Krause. 2011. “What is Soundscape Ecology? an Introduction and Overview of an Emerging New Science.” Landscape Ecology 26 (9): 1213-1232. doi:10.1007/s10980-011-9600-8.

[2]:Jones, G. and M. W. Holderied. 2007. “Bat Echolocation Calls: Adaptation and Convergent Evolution.” Proceedings.Biological Sciences / the Royal Society 274 (1612): 905-912.

[3]:Hetrick, Stacia A. and Kathryn E. Sieving. 2012. “Antipredator Calls of Tufted Titmice and Interspecific Transfer of Encoded Threat Information.” Behavioral Ecology 23 (1): 83-92. doi:10.1093/beheco/arr160.

[4]:Gage, Stuart H. and Anne C. Axel. 2014. “Visualization of Temporal Change in Soundscape Power of a Michigan Lake Habitat Over a 4-Year Period.” Ecological Informatics 21: 100-109.

[5]:Stansfeld, S. A. and M. P. Matheson. 2003. “Noise Pollution: Non-Auditory Effects on Health.” British Medical Bulletin 68: 243-257.

[6]:Alvarsson, Jesper J., Stefan Wiens, and Mats E. Nilsson. 2010. “Stress Recovery during Exposure to Nature Sound and Environmental Noise.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7 (3): 1036-1046.

More From Thats Life [Science]

Dialogue & Discussion