Blake Mathys on the ABA blog had a nice piece recently where he posed the question: Why is sound so hard? In the piece, he laments, “I find identifying birds by sound to be extremely difficult.” Of course there are many, many birders who share his feeling.
So why IS sound so hard? Or at least, why do people think it is? I made some comments on the ABA blog, but wanted to expand on them here, mainly because I want to counter the suspicion many people have that it’s because they lack some native ability. In short, my answer is: Sound may be hard—but it’s not that hard.
Yes, there are some things that make sound inherently challenging, including:
1) Greater variability (esp., songs), compared to (many) plumages;
2) Transience (it’s much easier to compare something seen to a drawing or photo, than something heard to a recording);
3) Most people are visually dominant.
But these difficulties of sound are not the interesting part and not the main story. Every birder out there has already mastered a far more complex auditory skill: human language, and the same skills apply to bird sounds. (Scroll down to the bottom of the Larkwire Glossary to hear some examples of this.)
The problem is not that sound is inherently hard, it’s that the variability and the transience simply make clear that our approach to learning sounds is often flawed.
The fact is that cognitive psychologists could take you into the lab and train you up on nearly any skill, and do so very efficiently. They would do this by carefully controlling three things: 1) the timing of practice; 2) the structure of practice (roughly, from easy to hard); 3) the type of practice (basically, quizzing rather than sheer repetition).
Control these three factors and sound will not be hard.
So why is sound hard outside the lab? Because for most of us, the natural pattern of our exposure to bird sounds violates all three of these critical factors. Timing is too spaced out. Difficulty is random, not controlled. And when we do control timing and difficulty (using CDs), most of us just listen on repeat rather than test ourselves. The very gifted among us learn despite these hurdles; for the rest of us, it’s too hard!
Which is exactly why we designed Larkwire to control all three of these critical factors. The difference that highly structured practice—combined with explanations from a master ear birder—can make is nothing short of remarkable.
Of course, it doesn’t work overnight, but it can make what seemed to be an impossible task efficient and even fun.
Which one is it? (Credit: Macaulay Library)
This month’s ABA Winging It (subscription required) has a fascinating article by John Berry about a habitat restoration project just outside of Newark, NJ. The gist of it is that one simple intervention—managing the deer population—has dramatically changed the landscape and created habitat that is attracting a wide variety of birds that previously did not use the park (South Mountain Reservation).
This is a great story for several reasons. It shows how powerfully resilient nature can be—this heavily suburbanized park rebounding into plant, insect and bird life as soon as the burden of overgrazing is removed. And it’s a reminder that habitat loss (a key factor in most bird species decline) isn’t just about clearing land for condos, it includes habitat degradation even in places that are supposedly preserved for nature.
Which leads to the topic of shifting baselines. I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We went into “the woods” and thought we were out in the wild. In fact, we were in an impoverished landscape, like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. I think it’s harder for kids to fall in love with nature with so many parts missing.
But it’s great to know that most of the parts are still there and will come back, if we give them the chance.
Every quarter I get to pay the only bills that I really love paying: our royalties to the planet. It’s our reason for being in business and it feels great!
AlTo is one of those tiny, scrappy NGOs that we love, doing conservation in North Sulawesi, Indonesia—one of the most unique places on Earth. They are a model of integrity, efficiency, and integrating conservation with local, sustainable development. Thank you, AlTo!
ABC is a much larger organization, working throughout the America’s. We love their systemic and highly collaborative approach to conservation. Their strategy is based on monitoring and neutralizing the whole range of threats to birds (and other species) and their tactics depend on working closely with many great partners both domestically and internationally. Thank you, American Bird Conservancy!