Natural Soundscapes

June 09, 2020

Soundscapes in Nature

Soundscapes are all around us. In a busy day going to work or school, the sounds of everyday life become like white noise; a background we barely notice. The thud of a car door, the click of the kettle, the sound of footprints on a pavement – these are the sounds of human life. But they’re not the only sounds of life, and during the quietness lockdown has brought us, I have enjoyed immersing myself in the natural soundscape of North Yorkshire.

My footsteps are quiet on the earth, which is cracked and dry due to the prolonged period of dry weather we’ve been experiencing, but around me, the woods are full of noises. The stream sounds different depending where I stop to listen; a lower, fuller splashing sound in deeper sections where the water tumbles over smooth rocks, weathered by the river, or a gentle, higher splash on shallower sections. Above me, the whistling song of the Blackbird (Turdus merula) fills the air.

Juvenile Blackbird Silhouette

This family has just fledged, and the young are enjoying exploring the woodland and the bountiful food it has to offer – be it insects, arachnids, or even small newts!

Further along, a Song Thrush’s (Turdus philomelos) familiar song is blasted from the top of a Blackthorn hedge: the repetitive nature of the song, mixed with each bird’s unique improvisation, is what makes it so distinctive. Every Song Thrush is a composer and rearranger, as well as a performer of their own songs – they are constantly improvising and altering, to create a new masterpiece every time. There are many musicians in the world who would love to be as good at improvisation as a Song Thrush!

Song Thrush

A sudden burst of noise spirals out of a bush on my left, alerting me to a Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) and her fledglings. Wrens may be tiny birds (although not our smallest), but for small birds they make a lot of noise – and their loud call is iconic.  

Singing Wren

The pond is one of the richest soundscapes in my local patch; the whistle and sharp, short “crark” of the Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) echoes across the pond. As I crouch amongst the undergrowth, the buzz of bees and hoverflies fills my head: the “buzzing” sound is actually a by-product of the wing vibrations the bees make while flying, and the vibrations also help shake the pollen off the flower’s anthers and onto the bee’s body, enabling pollination.

Honeybee

By far one of my favourite recent encounters is with a newly-fledged family of Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus). Compared to the brighter adults, the youngsters are less colourful, with brown heads and pale-pink chests. As they mature, their chests become a deeper pink, and their heads become black. The whole family hops in the branches around me, chirruping and constantly communicating with each other. The Long-tailed Tits huddle close to one another at times, before flying through the Willow branches and alighting to feed on small insects and spiders. Their soft “tsurp” is perhaps one of the easily recognised bird sounds, often heard before seeing a whole family group enter a garden to feed.

Juvenile Long-tailed Tit

Returning home to sounds of human life: cars, voices, and dogs barking – the volume of our noise is strikingly different to the natural soundscape. There is no doubt that human noise pollution, especially in our oceans and in urban areas, has had a detrimental effect on many animal species around the world – including humans. But lockdown has shown us just how rich the natural soundscape can be. I hope that in the future, instead of simply returning to our noisy, busy, bustling lives, we will take time to go outside and lose ourselves in the sound of nature.

 


REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

Barnes S. (2009) Songs of the Thrush, Available: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/songs-of-the-thrush-0ztfs7h98kp

Lewis A. (2019) Bird song identification: songs and calls for beginners, Available: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2019/04/identify-bird-song/

Mena L. M. & Garcia C. M. (2018) “Songbird community structure changes with noise in an urban reserve”, Journal of Urban Ecology; Volume 4, Issue 1: https://doi.org/10.1093/jue/juy022

Merchant N. (2020) Swimming in Silent Seas, Springwatch Blog 2020; Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/natureuk/entries/6b8489b0-21b9-4c36-bb14-99c434ebfcce

Otis G. (2005) Why do Bees buzz?, Scientific American, Available: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-bees-buzz/#:~:text=Bees%20buzz%20for%20two%20reasons,that%20people%20hear%20as%20buzzes.&text=These%20vibrations%20shake%20the%20pollen,bee%20visits%2C%20resulting%20in%20pollination.