Do you hear that? : Soundscape Ecology in the Arb

May 17, 2019 at 9:23 am
By Kate Nootenboom '20

Eastern Pheobe

 The much anticipated arrival of spring in the Arboretum always brings with it a great booming of life; green, verdant, crowded, and loud. Now that we’ve seemingly shuffled off the silence of winter, a walk in the thawed-out Arb is newly accompanied by birdsong, bug thrum, sport cheer, and river rush. Listening in to these sounds can give us hints not only about what season we’re currently in, but about the long-term health and vibrancy of surrounding habitats, using the principles of a field known as soundscape ecology.

Soundscape ecology allows us to quantifiably study acoustic relationships in ecosystems and glean from them subtle clues about their health and level of human impact. Specialists in the field record audio from an ecosystem and qualify the sounds into one of three categories based on their origin: biophony refers to sounds created by organisms, such as bird calls, geophony includes all sounds created by non-biological processes, such as water flowing, and finally anthrophony encompasses sounds produced by humans or man-made mechanisms, like engine noise. These recorded soundscapes are used to measure population changes and overall transformation of an area over time.

Here in the Arboretum, we use soundscape ecology in several ways. Thrice annually, student naturalists conduct an amphibian survey of the wetlands, during which frog and toad species are identified and recorded based on their calls. The annual bird count also uses calls to measure yearly fluctuations in bird species by quantifying the relative prevalence of their songs. Finally, iconic mating sounds are often sought out by nature enthusiasts as reassurance that enigmatic species are still thriving and, more importantly, flirting. In the Midwest, this includes the spiraling trill of a woodcock, or the eerie boom of prairie chicken out on the lek.

For those interested, the annual bird count will leave from the Arb Office this Saturday, the 18th, at 6:00am, and the Frog and Toad survey will leave from the Lower Arb entrance at 8:00pm on Tuesday the 21st, weather permitting. All are welcome to join, walk, and listen.

-Kate Nootenboom ‘20, for the Cole Student Naturalists


Photo: Eastern Phoebe by Dan Tallman

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