A recent article in BBC News Magazine highlights some fascinating research being conducted on how tuned in we are to bird song.
People find birdsong relaxing and reassuring because over thousands of years they have learnt when the birds sing they are safe, it’s when birds stop singing that people need to worry. Birdsong is also nature’s alarm clock, with the dawn chorus signalling the start of the day, so it stimulates us cognitively. – Julian Treasure
The research highlighted several areas in which exposure to bird song has been beneficial:
Concentration and learning
Certain sounds, including birdsong, make it easier to focus. Bird song, according to Julian Treasure, author of Sound Business, relaxes people physically, but stimulates them mentally. Many people believe that listening to bird song has a cognitive benefit. In addition, bird song and other natural sounds helps some people stay alert after a meal.
Reducing stress and anxiety
Playing bird song in hospitals has been shown to reduce anxiety prior to injections and surgical procedures. Natural sounds in transport hubs help reduce the stress of travel: Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport uses bird song in a quiet lounge where people can relax before their flights, earning the airport a high-ranking among passengers.
Businesses that play bird song in the background (as opposed to MUZAK or white noise) report an increase in business and customer satisfaction.
Resetting our ears
All of the above studies were done with recorded bird song. As Julian Treasure states,
“It resets the ears, allows us to hear properly. Most of us walk around with our ears switched off because so much noise is unpleasant.”
As the world has become more and more overwhelmed with the noise of machines, cars, trains, plains, loud music, honking horns, etc., our only defense is to tune it out or turn up the sound through our ear buds. But we also lose the natural sounds when we do that, and as recent studies have shown, those natural sounds are vital to our physical and psychological well-being. Repeated studies have shown that exposure to mechanical and white noise negatively affects concentration, learning, and stress levels. So next time you’re stressed out or having trouble concentrating, go for a walk in a nice quiet place. If that’s not possible, listen to recorded natural sounds, especially those featuring bird song.
Not mentioned in the above article, but well-documented in other studies, is the importance of birds as indicators of habitat quality and composition. As I’ve recorded bird song, particularly dawn choruses, in a variety of habitats throughout the southwestern US, it’s very obvious that each one is different. Different habitats have different bird communities, and habitat changes are reflected in both the bird communities and bird song. Likewise, the introduction of exotic species changes the community composition and its song. In the last 10 years at my home in southeastern Arizona, a rapid increase in populations of house sparrows and Eurasian collared-doves has dramatically changed the dawn chorus (see Early spring in the Sonoran Desert).
Watching and listening to birds is also a great reminder that there are entire thriving communities that have nothing to do with us. As the birds go about their little bird-lives, attracting mates, laying eggs, raising the chicks, finding food, trying to survive, they are not concerned with us in the least. We may be the center of our own universes, but we are not the center of theirs. Sometimes its good to remind yourself of that.
As eloquently put by Isaac Yuen in a recent blog post:
To see the world from a non-human perspective helps us reconnect with the world: It can generate awareness and appreciation for other life. It can also cultivate empathy and facilitate big picture thinking. But we as humans are prisoners of our own bodies and experiences. Barring accomplished nature-whisperers, communication and communion with other life forms is impossible. How then can we cross over to view the world from the other side?
I will leave you to ponder the answer to his question. In the meanwhile, what would a post about bird song be without an example? Below is a portion of a dawn chorus I recorded near a beaver pond at Apache Creek, New Mexico.
Additional references: Krause, B. 2012. The great animal orchestra: finding the origins of music in the world’s wild places. Little, Brown and Co.
Recording notes: Recorded with Sony PCM-M10 and Audio-Technica AT2022 with FEL SK3.5 preamp. Recording subject to amplification and equalization.