Listening to the sounds of nature can be educational. But it can also be extremely soothing. In other words, potentially very helpful in these turbulent times!
Now it’s time to keep our ears open and listen to the sounds of nature. In this article I’ll be briefly covering the following topics:
- Listening to the birds
- The difference between a bird’s song and its call
- How to learn bird songs
- Using mnemonics to remember bird sounds
- A wonder of nature: the dawn chorus
- The benefits of listening to the birds
- The benefits of listening to other sounds of nature
First in the queue to serenade us are the birds.
Listening to the birds
Birds are probably the most common sounds of nature for most of us. Listening to and learning bird sounds will enable us all to more fully understand the workings of the natural world. It will also help us improve our bird identification skills. Many birds seem to enjoy hiding from the prying eyes of birdwatchers. Where do they hide? In deep undergrowth. A field of corn. At the top of a tree. In the pitch black of a moonless night. However, even in these places, birds often reveal their presence by singing or calling.
Learning bird song will enable you to walk through a wood in springtime and know what birds are present without having to see them. The nuthatch, treecreeper, willow warbler and chiffchaff, for example. You will be able to sit in your garden and enjoy identifying the singing dunnock, song thrush, robin and goldcrest — and impress visitors! You will be able to hear and identify the alarm calls of a jay, magpie or wren.
Or at night-time you will be able to hear the night-time hoots of tawny owls and distinguish between a male and a female. Did you know that the well-known tu-whit-tu-whoo is a combination of two birds? The female goes tu-whit and the male replies whoo-whoo!
Learning bird sounds may improve a child’s listening abilities, by training them to perceive often minute differences in the calls of birds, many of which are extremely similar. They may be able to better appreciate pieces of classical music that incorporate or allude to bird sounds. Examples abound. Beethoven’s pastoral symphony with its quail, cuckoo and nightingale. Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. The duck in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.
In short, understanding bird sounds will be another “string to the bow” of a budding birdwatcher, young or older.
What’s the difference between a bird’s song and a call?
Bird sounds are categorized as songs or calls. A song is generally associated with proclaiming the bird’s territory or attracting the attention of a potential mate. It’s generally the males of the species that sings. And then only during the breeding season, as a rule. Many bird songs are stunningly complex and beautiful. The nightingale is renowned for its song.
Bird calls, on the other hand, tend to be much simpler, are usually unmusical, and serve a variety of practical, non-sexual functions. A bird’s call can alert other birds to the nearby presence or approach of a predator (an alarm call). A bird could make a call to drive away its enemies, such as when birds “mob” a sleeping owl during the day. Or a bird might call to reveal its presence in a flock (a contact call). Here’s the rather grating call of a jay.
Birds also use many non-vocal modes of communication by sound. The classic example is the “drumming” of a woodpecker. This is when it repeatedly and rapidly pecks on a resonant object to create a pattern of sound. Usually the object is a hollow tree or fallen log. But woodpeckers sometimes drum on fence posts, litter bins, chimneys, drainpipes, and utility poles. Listening to a woodpecker drumming and then trying to spot the bird is a challenge that will keep a child occupied during a spring woodland walk!
Another example, and a particular favorite of mine, is the drumming of snipe.
These long-billed wading birds mark out their territories in spring in a most pecular way. They fly steeply into the sky and then rapidly dive down. As they descend, the snipe’s outer tail feathers vibrate in the wind. This produces a peculiar and surprisingly loud noise. It sounds a bit like an anxious sheep bleating.
How to learn bird sounds?
So how do you encourage yourself or a young birdwatcher to learn bird sounds? There’s no quick and easy way; it takes time, focus and devotion. The way I did it as a 12-year-old was to listen repeatedly to two LPs called Bird Sounds in Close-up, Volumes I and II. They consisted of numerous tracks of birds singing and calling, separated by “beeps”, and described on a leaflet. My parents must have become sick of the sound of cheeps, caws, quacks, trills and screeches emanating from my bedroom!
At first the records were totally overwhelming as there were just too many bird songs and calls to remember initially. For this reason, I would encourage a child to learn bird sounds gradually, by steadily building up their knowledge base.
There are many websites, CDs, DVDs and apps developed for birdwatchers to get to know bird sounds. However, I recommend starting younger children off with simple audio books. These contain pictures of birds, information on them, and buttons to press to hear those birds singing. A child could start with just one of these books and learn that small collection of songs before moving on to another book. In this way they can gradually build up their repertoire. All the songs and calls that a child memorizes will be firmly and irrevocably etched into their brain.
There’s a really lovely series of bird sound books for younger children, by Caz Buckingham and Andrea Pinnington. The child simply presses the button and hears the song. Each includes some basic info on that bird. My little grandson soon wore out the battery on his copy! Click for more info:
Similar books exist for the more advanced birdwatcher. One example I have heard good reports about is Bird Songs: 250 North American Birds in Song.
Using mnemonics to remember bird sounds
Learning bird sounds is not easy, but there is one trick to make it easier. It might make it more fun for children too. And help them develop their melodic and rhythmic abilities. This is to use mnemonics.
These are catchy phrases that are associated with a bird’s song or call. For example, the yellowhammer’s song typically consists of seven rapidly repeated short notes followed by an eighth, higher and more drawn out note. The traditional mnemonic is “little-bit-of-bread-and-no-CHEEEEESE.”
The barred owl sounds like it’s saying “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all.”
The red-chested cuckoo is telling the world “it will rain, it will rain.” The quail utters “wet-my-lips, wet-my-lips. And the chiming wedgebill poses the question “why did you get drunk?”
One of my favourites is the reed bunting’s scratchy little song, with its mnemonic “Ich sing immer noch schlecht” (I still sing badly!).
QUESTIONS TO ASK A CHILD
- After you listen to a particular bird song, can you invent your own mnemonic? Pay close attention to the rhythm and timing of the song, and come up with a phrase that you can recall easily.
- Can you do some research and make a list of birds that call out their name? Examples are the cuckoo and chickadee.
A wonder of nature: the dawn chorus
One specific project that we can do during this coronavirus lockdown is to get up early in late April or early May and listen to the dawn chorus. This is a truly magical natural happening. It occurs when birds wake up and burst into song to proclaim their territory before they start foraging for food. Listen to this recording of a dawn chorus from an English wood in springtime.
Interestingly, birds with larger eyes tend to start singing earlier than birds with smaller eyes. The reason is that larger eyes have a better light-gathering ability. A bird with large eyes can therefore see earlier in the morning compared to a bird with small eyes. So it will start singing earlier.
Furthermore, birds are singing in higher pitches than they used to. This is believed to be an evolutionary coping mechanism for the increased traffic noise in cities.
The benefits of listening to the birds
So far I’ve been writing about the benefits of learning bird sounds, but there is growing evidence that merely listening to the sounds of nature such as bird sounds can benefit us in numerous ways.
Evolutionary speaking, over hundreds of thousands of years human beings have come to equate bird song with safety. In other words, our brains are conditioned to believe that when the birds are singing, all is well with the world. It’s only when birds stop singing — for example due to an approaching predator or an impending natural disaster — that we subconsciously start being concerned that all might not be well in the immediate environment.
This correlation between bird song and peace of mind is being put to good use. Some children’s hospitals play bird song in the wards. It’s particularly useful to calm young patients as they receive injections. Bird song is linked to reducing stress levels and lessening the symptoms of attention deficit disorders. It can help children concentrate and improve their focus.
PROJECTS TO DO TOGETHER WITH A CHILD
- Set your alarms so you can get up while it’s still dark and experience the wonder of the dawn chorus.
- Make a list of the sequence of birds that wake up and start singing during the dawn chorus.
- At home, play some quiet bird song as background “music” while a child is doing their school homework. Or when they are feeling stressed, anxious or exhausted. (It may help you too!)
The benefits of listening to the sounds of nature
Numerous global studies have shown that people regularly exposed to particular sounds at certain frequencies report lower stress levels. Some have gone further and find that a decrease in physical pain is possible.
“Sound medicine” is used with patients with Alzheimer’s disease. It can also be applied to people suffering from the muscle pain and fatigue of fibromyalgia.
During this coronavirus lockdown, why not listen to some sounds of nature? Here are some examples. The calming sounds of a river flowing over rocks, or the buzzing bees in a country garden. Or maybe it’s the ocean waves on a pebble beach that will restore your peace of mind.
During this current coronavirus lockdown, many us are simply unable to go for a walk, apart from locally. So listening to the sounds of nature can transport us “out of ourselves.” How about these coyotes? Or these wolves? Or the underwater singing of humpback whales?
Enjoy the sounds of nature!
How are you going to listen to the sounds of nature today or this coming week? You might find that they help to disperse stress or anxiety caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Standing on your apartment balcony listening to a robin in the nearby tree? Sitting in your garden as a bee buzzes among the early spring flowers? Walking in the local fields while a skylark serenades you from above? Some of you might be lucky to live close to a river or the beach so can enjoy the sounds of water and waves.
If none of these are applicable to you, then maybe the audio clips in this post will be helpful. Just grab your headphones. Let the sounds of nature wash over you. Who knows how better you might feel?
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