Soundscapes: connecting us to nature and conservation
August 23, 2023
This blog post was written by Point Blue graduate student intern Faiza Hafeez, with support from Diana Humple, Palomarin Program Lead, Mike Mahoney, Palomarin Banding Supervisor, and Dai Shizuka, Faiza’s PhD advisor. Faiza interned for the past 6 months at Point Blue – first at the Palomarin Field Station, and then on the Farallon Islands – through the NSF Intern Supplement Program, which provides a pathway for graduate students to gain experience outside of academia that aligns with their career goals. She is in a PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she studies birds and their communications, and this blog provides a window into why she finds the world of bird sounds so fascinating!
I am an international graduate student intern at Palomarin Field Station. My country of origin is Pakistan which encompasses diverse landscapes and climates. I have been an urbanite most of my life living in cities including Lahore, but I spent my childhood (in the 90’s) in rural areas of Punjab. My village near Sahiwal had landscape typical of any rural area in Punjab; filled with mango and guava trees, fields of mustard, wheat, and sugar cane, and a lot of cattle.
The soundscape of my village was dominated by the sounds of cattle, grindstones, oxen fetching water through Persian wheels, and coos of “ghuggi” (local common name for multiple dove species). I lost these sounds after moving to a metropolitan area where only calls of house crows and black kites would seldom emerge from the raucous of city traffic. Staying at the Palomarin Field Station in Point Reyes National Seashore and hearing the cooing of Mourning Doves somehow reconnects me to my childhood in Pakistan. I have missed these coos for so long! Isn’t it strange that sounds can evoke a sense of belonging to a place away from home?
I find a strange serenity in nature, in breathing fresh air, in walking through beautiful landscapes, and in listening to nature’s music – its soundscape or its acoustic environment. I feel that it is the sound of the wind whispering to the forest, of muffled leaves, of singing birds, of cricket trills, and of water flowing through creeks that can deepen one’s connection to nature. These soundscapes can also be ‘seen’ – through spectrograms (e.g., in the Merlin Bird ID app) – which are a visual representation of frequencies of sound signals. Spectrograms allow us to hear the unheard sounds such as ultrasounds (e.g., dolphins, rodents, bats) and infrasounds (e.g., Indian Peafowl, humpback whale). Hearing and visualizing soundscapes of different places can often make the experience unique and meaningful. A marsh sounds different than a prairie, as does its spectrogram. The soundscape of a forest is different than a scrubland. Each habitat has a distinct soundscape so as each season!
Spring is the season of hope and new beginnings. It is the time we transition into pleasantly breezy mornings filled with sunlight, blossoming flowers, and some new bird songs. I look forward to waking up early in spring mornings to greet migrants who have travelled a long way and residents who have endured a tough winter, all singing their own incredible story. Sometimes I challenge myself with the task of finding spring warblers who like to play hide and seek with me. The change spring brings can be felt in both its landscape and soundscape. I like to experience the change in natural soundscape across seasons but especially in spring. If I could assign feelings to the soundscape, I would say fall sounds somber and spring sounds refreshing!
Sounds have a powerful impact on many of us. People belonging to different walks of life take inspiration from natural sounds, particularly scientists and artists. Each person has their own unique connection to sounds. For example, I find some sounds uplifting such as the dawn chorus of birds and songs of Wrentit, Common Yellowthroat, Marsh Wren, and Red-Vented Bulbul. I find some sounds very soothing especially mild rain, dove coos, and flute-like notes sung by the Indian Cuckoo. Some sounds give me calming energy such as Northern Mockingbird, Hermit Thrush, and waterfalls. Sometimes I miss common birds and their songs from my home country – who have accompanied me through countless evening teas in my backyard. Sounds feel like a companion bestowed upon me by nature. I believe we all have a bond with nature which is strengthened by its soundscape.
Sounds influence both our conscious and unconscious mind. Human emotional association to natural soundscapes is a popular topic in science. Natural sounds are associated with a wide range of positive emotional responses. There are several theories about the therapeutic effects of nature such as stress reduction theory and attention restoration theory. Hearing natural sounds can reduce our physiological response to stressors. Natural sounds can alleviate mental fatigue and help in keeping our minds in a calm balanced state which results in improved decision making and productivity. Recordings of natural soundscapes are widely used in meditation, mindfulness, and sleep improvement programs.
Below is a clip of dawn chorus from the bridge crossing the Arroyo Hondo Creek on the Nature Trail by the Palomarin Field Station, recorded by Mark Lipman (a documentary filmmaker at Open Studio Productions who is collaborating with Point Reyes National Seashore Association on a soundscape mapping project in the Park). Mark says, “Even though I’m very attuned to listening, I’m still amazed at the power of sound to transport you to a particular place and time.” This is an accurate description of what this recording does to me. It has an instant meditative effect on me, and I feel myself at that bridge the moment I close my eyes and listen.
Sounds can take us to places where we cannot go physically (or like the above Arroyo Hondo recording, to places you’ve perhaps been in the past and maybe can’t return and want to connect to again). With recent technological advances, humans have been able to document and archive sounds from previously unexplored regions and share it around the world through forums such as Macaulay Library and Xeno Canto. Today we can listen to the whines of shearwater nestlings dwelling on the remote islands of Kaua’i, sounds of fish and critters living in deep coral reefs, whistles of elusive narwhals summering in glacial fjords, and much more, just from home.
Natural soundscapes can be considered as natural resources which provide various ecosystem services including human well-being. It is a sad reality that just like other natural resources, natural soundscapes are also diminishing. Widespread declines of songbirds across North America, critical endangerment of wildlife, plummeting insect biodiversity, habitat loss, urbanization, and noise pollution are contributing to the loss of acoustic diversity and unprecedented change in soundscapes. Dawn choruses are becoming less diverse, and complexity of soundscapes is decreasing. We have lost some songs and will probably lose more in the future. This risks us losing more of our fundamental and intimate relationship with nature. Therefore, scientists nowadays not only focus on conserving the natural landscapes but also take natural soundscapes into consideration.
Soundscapes are not only important for human well-being but also important for science. Sounds can provide insights into behavior, fitness, and life history traits of species such as mating and social behavior. Sounds are a key element used to monitor birds in many types of bird surveys (e.g., point count, territory mapping, and area search surveys for landbirds, methods that are core to many of Point Blue’s projects including Palomarin). Sounds can be employed to monitor a lot of elusive and nocturnal bird species (e.g., rails and owls) which are detected mostly by their songs and calls. Additionally, soundscapes offer a large potential for conservation. A very common application is bioacoustic monitoring for various purposes such as collecting baseline data, conducting acoustic censuses, and measuring ecosystem responses to human perturbations such as noise. Use of bioacoustic monitoring is widespread in marine ecosystems and is becoming increasingly popular in terrestrial systems, especially those with nocturnal species, or with species dwelling in hard-to-reach environments. Sounds can be used to not only identify conservation needs, but they can also help us evaluate the impact of conservation programs. With the expansion of the technology and field of bioacoustics, there have been efforts to reconstruct the past soundscapes to understand what once was. Strategies are being explored to reduce noise pollution to avoid risks for human health and wildlife communities. Today, we are developing online sound libraries and collecting sounds from all over the world. The benefits of recording soundscapes are multifold. We can hear ‘pristine’ parts of nature and revive our connection with nature, learn about organisms, and monitor ecosystems. Soundscapes reflect the delicate complexity of nature. Soundscapes are an integral part of nature and a fundamental way through which we engage with nature. The world of sounds is diverse, and it should stay as diverse!
In the end, I would ask that you take a moment to reflect on the sounds that are meaningful to you and feel a deeper connection with nature as a result. Are there any sounds that are dear to you? If you are from another country, or if you live in a very different area than where you grew up, what are some sounds you miss from home? If you have been listening to birds for a long time, are there certain birds that you once commonly heard that you now miss hearing? Perhaps you can find some of these sounds from your past in online archives and reconnect with them! You can also explore new areas, their biodiversity, and the sounds unique to them. For example, if you are interested in visiting birding hotspots and hearing new bird songs, getting involved with a local organization like Point Blue can be a good way to connect with your landscape (in fact, read about visiting for a bird banding demonstration at the Palomarin Field Station here: https://www.pointblue.org/about-us/contact-visit-us/). And finally, perhaps reflect on which pathways in your life caused you to appreciate the soundscapes around you, and to feel connections to the larger landscapes.
And while you are at it: maybe even get out and record some of the sounds that are meaningful to you!