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Soundscape Ecology: Learning How Nature Speaks

Snow had not yet fallen on the trail, but it's anticipation had blanketed everything in thick layers of silence. Even light moved slowly, lending everything in its path a crisp vibrance and precious little warmth. What sound remained was the soft crunch of gravel and sand underneath the treads of a single pair of hiking boots, until a rhythmic pulse stirred the air - the wingbeats of a raven in flight.

I looked up into the sapphire sky directly overhead and saw it, not close enough to reach, but rather occupying the space just above the tops of the pines, black feathers shifting the direction of the atmosphere in percussive waves. The bird continued on its path as birds do, disappearing from my sight.

It’s a sound that I had until that point never heard because in the day to day of urban life, few sounds of nature rise above the cacophony of machines, motors, car horns, and sirens. Even “quiet” mornings are punctuated with the buzzing and screeching of human activity. It’s hard to hear your own thoughts above all the chaos. It’s no wonder that we so often feel the need to escape. Quiet allows you to focus on the present moment but doesn’t need to insist. It dampens the mind’s constant chatter so that for once, you are part of the world and not just a spectator.

People often want to break free from the negative influences of noise pollution. It makes sense; there are significant negative health effects. Noise pollution has been linked to hearing impairment, hearing loss, and sleep disturbance, which may come as no surprise. Unwanted noise increases stress levels, induces anxiety, raises blood pressure, and increases blood thickness. It has also been linked to cognitive impairment, heart disease, and preeclampsia. Furthermore, elevated stress levels tend to make people more sensitive to stress, so that they find it more challenging to manage difficult situations effectively. People begin to feel isolated, unable to make sense of the world, and unable to control their lives.

So imagine that you are that raven. The sounds that you make and hear are a conversation, one that takes place all the time. It’s a shared language through which you derive meaning. You find your mates by listening for the call and responding in the appropriate manner. You defend your territory by announcing your presence in a certain location. You cooperate with your partner to flush prey from their hiding places. This conversation, in a very real sense, is your life and your ability to survive. There’s no escaping. There’s no place else to go.

So imagine that you are that raven. Your territory lies adjacent to a new land development project. The din of heavy construction equipment drowns out mating calls. You were lucky and heard this last one, but when you voiced your reply, all the competing mechanical sounds distorted its quality. Now the female you were talking to thinks you must be ill. She ended the conversation.

You announce that you are guarding a certain location, but the increased traffic to the area buzzes continuously in the background. An unnecessary conflict erupts because the strange bird in your territory didn’t know that you were there. The wound will need a few days to heal. Your foraging partner found a lizard that would have made a great meal. Because of all the noise coming from the plane flying overhead, it was harder to coordinate the hunting strategy, and the lizard got away. Too bad you're still hungry.

The outlook isn’t as bleak as it sounds. The increasing levels of noise over the past 50 years inspired scientists to start studying “soundscapes,” the sounds within specific geographic locations. Soundscapes include all the sounds made by the environment: animals, people, and features such as wind and rivers. The mix of sounds is characteristic of a certain time and place. Changes to the frequency, intensity, and timing of the mix’s components act as an early warning system for climate and weather changes, human encroachment, pollution, and species vulnerability. Moreover, the symptoms may point to the cure; recordings may uncover clues to the causes of a disturbance and inform effective mitigation strategies. Recording the data is also a passive and noninvasive process so studies can be conducted with only minimal impact on animal life.

In recognition of the value of quiet enjoyment, certain organizations have taken action. The Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division of the National Park Service has collected acoustic quality data for decades, using it to shape policies that protect and reduce human caused noise pollution within the parks system. Another organization called Quiet Parks International has developed a program whereby parks can qualify as certified quiet places if they meet certain criteria. The designation is earned when QPI sound experts successfully record 15 minutes of uninterrupted and pristine natural sounds on each of three consecutive days. Additionally, they award certifications for trails, residences, accommodations, communities, and conservation areas.

Nature communicates with us all the time. Listen to what it has to say. Support efforts to limit noise pollution in your own neighborhood.


About the Author:

Courtnay earned a Bachelor's in Environmental Biology from Colorado State University, Pueblo in 2017 after having worked in hospitality for many years. Courtnay is originally from Texas, but has lived and worked all over the West as a biological science field technician. She joined Americorps in October as a wetland restoration technician because Nevada was calling to me. She's really excited about working on this project and with this group of people!


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