I Missed the Sound of Birds – How to Use Your Ears in Natural Spaces

As I took a walk on a trail, in the process of creating a video for Alternatives Journal, I realized that I missed the sound of birds. I understand the absurdity of that sentence, it is not as if all birds have suddenly disappeared; the noisy robins outside of my window can attest to their very own grand show they put on every morning. What I mean, is that I missed the full-encompassing sounds of birds in the forest. It made me curious—what did the amount of sound, made by wildlife, mean for the conservation of natural spaces?

Sound recording equipment for wildlife surveys; Source: Wildlife Acoustics

Soundscape ecology is defined as the study of sounds within a landscape for some research purpose. This surveying method is not strictly used for ecological purposes, it can also be used to understand the dynamics and relationship society has with their surroundings. Although, this is most often used to understand the partnership of people and nature and, significantly, the strength and resilience of species in natural areas.

This type of technique is not new and you probably have done it before without realizing it. For example, say you were to pause in a forest and notice that you heard the sound of coyotes in the distance, well you would be recognizing their presence within the ecosystem. If you were an ecologist, you might even write it down and note its importance of such a species in any given area. This would be an efficient way to collect wildlife data, especially for species that are difficult to find through tracking or eye-sight alone. Although, if you do hear coyotes near you, I urge you to walk away (softly and swiftly) towards a safer area—even ecologists know when to call it quits!

The best example of this is seen in ornithological studies (the study of birds). Surveys focused on bird species, often rely on bioacoustics (wildlife acoustic data) to study a bird’s vocal behaviour and habitat use. This has been recently used to study the survivorship of Barred Owls, Boreal Owls, and Great Horned Owls; all of which are endangered species. Similar acoustic studies are also conducted for endangered bat species in conservation.

Source: Birdwatchers Digest

You can also participate in your acoustic surveys to listen to rare species of birds. Of course, it takes some practice to identify a bird from its call alone, but there are many apps that you can use to help you with this process—I use Smart Bird ID! Moreover, you can practice listening to these calls the old-fashioned way, by listening to them over and over! For North American bird species alone, Nature Conservancy Canada or Bird-Sounds.net are good tools for practice. 

Why go through this task of listening to the calls of wildlife? Well, there are many reasons people go out of their way to use their ears in natural spaces, some of which are: to have a cool trick on hikes, to understand an ecological system’s properties, to add an important skill set to the resume (especially if you are looking for an environmental science career). However, the most important reason any person should implore to use their ears in wild spaces is that it will make you appreciate nature more if you can understand the source of its sound and its significance. 

I suppose I will be doing the same thing, listening to the sounds of nature to discern some meaning from it. If only to appreciate the complex ecosystem these sounds arise from.

Although, my reason for this is because I know that if it were me calling out to my peers, in the great expanse of the woods, I would want someone to listen and understand me. And maybe even miss me, when they can’t hear my calls anymore. 

Ishani Dasgupta is majoring in Environment, Resources, and Sustainability (ERS), while also pursuing a minor in English & Literature Studies, at the University of Waterloo. She is a dedicated environmental writer and has worked throughout the course of her career to write about the challenges faced by communities, natural spaces, and activists alike regarding the destruction of the natural environment–she is interested in exploring global inequities created by the current Anthropocene. In her free time, Ishani likes to make music, read, and go on nature walks. Ishani is taking on the role of an editorial intern for Alternatives Journal (A/J).