Listening to birds: what happens when we hear a bird?


"Listening to Birds" is a two-year research project that has recently been launched with the aim of understanding the relationship between people and bird sounds. The research will be conducted by anthropologists from the University of Aberdeen and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project will explore how people learn to distinguish between the different sounds they hear and how bird sounds become important in people's lives and evocative of time, place and season.

We're particularly keen to understand how birders, as people who are sensitive to bird sounds and to the differences between them, listen to birds. Many birders are 'good on their calls' and have developed a great deal of skill in differentiating between sounds made by different species and even by different individuals. But how are these skills acquired and what do they actually involve doing? I'm interested in hearing from birders about how they've learned to recognise calls and songs and also about the difficulties they've faced in learning and remembering them.

Hume's Leaf Warbler (Photo: Jim Duncan)

Recent taxonomic developments have encouraged birders to become more aware of the subtle differences between birds and the role that calls play in making distinctions. A Hume's Leaf Warbler or Short-billed Dowitcher record is only likely to be accepted with a good description, or better still a recording, of the diagnostic call. Many other vagrants are most readily identified or located through their distinctive vocalisations and some of these are species that have only been split fairly recently, such as Buff-bellied Pipit and Iberian Chiffchaff. So being good at calls has become even more useful for any birder trying to find a rarity and get their records accepted.

The subtleties of bird calls that taxonomic developments have helped to reveal to birders have encouraged more to learn how to record and analyse bird sounds, as the recent success of The Sound Approach to Birding shows. Until recently it was rare to see birders making recordings in the field but the development of audio technologies has made recording equipment easier to use, more portable and more affordable. The tiny Remembird recorder, for example, fits onto most binoculars but still makes usable recordings at the touch of a button. The ready availability of software for producing sonograms and analysing vocalisations makes, for example, the tricky task of identifying Crossbills by call a more accessible task. I'm interested in hearing more about how these technologies are affecting how people go about birding and how they listen to birds.

Common Crossbill (Photo: Mark Hancox)

I'm also interested in the important role that hearing plays in scientific studies of birds. Many birders will be taking part in the next few years in work for the new breeding and wintering atlas and hearing birds is an integral part of surveying tetrads. Having done my first tetrads recently, I was quite struck by how carefully I had to listen for birds and how my skills at identifying sounds were being tested, even by common birds such as tits and thrushes. I'd be interested in hearing from any birders about how survey work helps them to learn to perceive and recognise different sounds.

You can tell us about your experiences of bird sounds through the project website or you can contact me directly (a.whitehouse@abdn.ac.uk). Your experiences can be from Britain or elsewhere and they can be recent events or distant memories.

Written by: Andrew Whitehouse