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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Nature's soundscape

Do you ever listen - really listen - to the soundscape in your yard? Perhaps you've never really thought about what a soundscape is. Well, it is made up of three elements.

First there is something called the geophony which includes all the non-biological but natural sounds. In my yard, that might include the sound of the breeze rustling the leaves or the sound of water splashing in my little fountain.

Next there is the biophony, which is just what it sounds like - all the biological sounds in Nature. Again, in my yard these would be things like birdsong, the sound of a woodpecker drumming, the chattering of squirrels, the sound of cicadas and other insects, or the sounds of frogs.

Lastly, there is the anthrophony, man-made sounds. For me, these include the background noise of traffic on the highway a couple of blocks away, the intermittent sounds of neighbors' lawn mowers or other power tools, the sounds of airplanes or helicopters passing over, even the sounds of children's voices and laughter as they play.

What brought all of this to the forefront of my mind was an opinion piece in The New York Times over the weekend. The writer had recorded the sounds of an area called Lincoln Meadow in California in the summer of 1988. It was just before the start of logging in the area. He found a rich medley of sound that included many species of birds as well as squirrels, frogs, and many insects.

He returned a year later to record the soundscape once again, and although the area did not look that much different - the logging had been done with care not to disturb the appearance of the environment more than necessary - the sounds recorded were strikingly different. There was "a muted hush, broken only by the sound of an occasional sparrow, raptor, raven, or sapsucker." He has returned regularly for fifteen years to record the sounds and still that hush remains. The rich mix of sounds that were present in 1988 is gone, perhaps forever.

This is what happens whenever and wherever we disturb Nature to build our roads, our houses, our shopping malls. We moved to our house, in an established neighborhood, in 1988. Much of the area around us was still undeveloped and there was a rich mix of bird life here, including Brown-headed Nuthatches, Pileated Woodpeckers, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and, in the spring, Indigo Buntings.  Those birds are mostly missing from my soundscape now, although I do occasionally hear the little nuthatches and Pileated Woodpeckers. But the Red-headed Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers have been gone for years and although some Indigo Buntings still pass through here, they are not in anything like the numbers that I used to see.

We continue to change the land. We can hardly help it. But as we do, we need to be aware of what we are doing and make an effort to do whatever we can to ameliorate the damage that we do and to set aside areas that are left natural for the birds and other animals. It is little enough, but it is the least that we can do to try and preserve Nature's soundscape.  


  1. Really interesting post. I heard something very similar on NPR. They were trying to record soundscapes in certain areas.

    Our neighborhood has changed as well. No longer do I hear Owls or see foxes.

    1. Yes, that's another thing, Steph. I used to see and hear Barred Owls here. No more.

  2. It's like the whole new theory they have on Tiger management in India - they need swaths of land, if given swaths instead of just plots, everyone ends up happier because the tigers can roam, and people can go about their lives without having run ins. we need to create north to south swaths of undeveloped land for birds...and other animals that may migrate.

    1. Yes, the idea of Nature "corridors" just seems to make so much common sense, katina, that one wonders why it hasn't been the prevailing philosophy before now. But we humans are slow learners. At least it seems that we may be coming around to accept a plan that is workable for all of Nature's children and not just ourselves.