Lockdown-Induced Silence Let Scientists Listen Closely to Birdsong

There are some silver linings to the coronavirus lockdown, and this is one of them.

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warbler singing on a branch
Warbler sings on a branch.

@photosbyjimn via Twenty20 

There is a concert that takes place every spring morning outside your window. It's called the dawn chorus and it features birds of all kinds, singing in response to various stages of the sunrise. The dawn chorus has been around for time immemorial, but it has become obscured in more recent years by the noise of modern life – traffic, planes, industrial machinery, and human chatter. But the pandemic-induced global lockdown has presented a unique opportunity for scientists to listen more closely than ever before.

As soon as they realized the advantages of the sudden silence, scientists at the Biotopia Museum in Munich, Germany, quickly put together a plan. They launched a citizen science project called Dawn Chorus and asked people to record birdsong at sunrise from wherever they live. Throughout the month of May, around 3,000 of these recordings made on smartphones were uploaded and shared online, comprising the first ever global sound map of spring's dawn chorus.

This is important because birdsong provides information about the health, resilience, and biodiversity of a particular place. The scientists explain on the Dawn Chorus website what they want to do with this new acoustical information:

"Based on the collected data we hope to verify the occurrence of different (singing) species, and follow its development across years. This could help investigating species decline or disappearance in different habitats (including in cities), and to find explanations. Further, we hope to shed some light on the present types and intensities of human-made noise sources (e.g. traffic noise), and how they may influence bird song."

Soundscapes are powerful tools for learning. While a picture may be worth a thousand words, birdsong recordings are said to be worth a thousand pictures. They can also change drastically, as acoustician and founding father of the soundscape movement Bernie Krause discovered when a California forest was logged: "Despite reforestation efforts, the majority of birds had become silent, even years after the logging event." Having a record of birdsong gives scientists a baseline, allows them to note changes in coming years, and analyze the effects of human activity.  

Dr. Lisa Gill, who is involved with analyzing the recordings, told the Guardian

"Some are simply beautiful: the golden oriole, the peacefulness of raindrops and blackbird song.” Listening to sound reveals a very different hierarchy to visual observation: “The blackbird and the great tit are the most frequent, but this is about where the similarity ends. Little brown birds are relatively difficult to spot and distinguish visually, but easily detected by ear – and who doesn’t know what the cuckoo sounds like? I believe most people identify birds by vision, which, as we can see, really influences the outcome."

Calling on the general public to contribute allows scientists to reach further afield than they would be capable of otherwise, even if the recordings are not of professional quality. Projects like this one generate enthusiasm for scientific research and for the natural world that the general public might not otherwise feel, and it "has an educational aspect in that it transfers knowledge and provides food for thought." It's a wonderful activity in which to involve children, as well, who have a natural inclination toward identifying species of all kinds.

The time for participation in 2020 has ended, but it will repeat itself every year, so you can mark it in your calendar for May 2021. All recordings are available to the general public and can be used in the creation of art and in the pursuit of scientific learning.