Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Evocative Power of Sound

Laura recording birds

Ever since I was a small child, I’ve been aware of the evocative power of sounds. The only specific bird sound I knew before I took up birding as an adult was the cardinal, but the general bird songs of a spring morning as I walked to school or took a Saturday hike along our town’s little creek gave me a deep feeling of contentment.

The sounds of human voices evoke their presence in a way photographs can’t for me. When I was digitizing radio programs from the 80s last year, I found an old April fools program in which Russ and my children each had a little line in an American Blue Jay Insurance commercial. (On this recording, starting at 2:20). Just hearing those voices as they sounded 28 years ago gave me the feeling of traveling back in time to re-experience that lovely time in our lives. For months after my sister died, I called her phone number a lot when I knew no one would be home, just to hear her voice on the recording.

Joey, Tommy, and Katie modeling their "I'm for the Birds" t-shirts in 1988.

The sounds of nature can be just as evocative. This week I’ve been digitizing and getting onto my web page a few of the natural sound recordings I’ve made since Russ gave me a good parabolic microphone for Christmas in 2000. He gave it to me in anticipation of my first trip to the tropics—I headed for Costa Rica on 01/01/01. The most satisfying recording I got there was when I left the little omnidirectional microphone, without the parabola attached, on a branch in the middle of a hummingbird feeding station. The recording is over 10 minutes long, and hearing it conjures the thrill of seeing and hearing dozens of hummingbirds zipping in and out, the wind of their wings brushing my face as they buzzed by. I’ve been to the American tropics at least 7 times since then, but that first time was magical, and this sound recording brings back that feeling of discovery more than my photos do.

White-throated Mountain-gem

Paul Simon said, “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. Everybody thinks it’s true.” That was one of my favorite songs long before I spent time in the Friends of the Sanctuary’s Sharp-tailed Grouse observation blind at a Douglas County Wisconsin wildlife area where I set out my microphone before I settled in to the blind to watch dancing grouse. While it was still too dark for the grouse and the first Brown Thrashers and Field Sparrows were just starting to pipe in, a distant train went past. Normally I don’t like human sounds to intrude on recordings, but somehow this recording makes me happy.

Douglas County Wildlife Area sign

I’ve made a webpage linking to 16 natural sound recordings (so far), a few only 2 minutes long but some much longer, conjuring specific moments and places. The longest are a 52-minute long recording of the dawn chorus one May morning outside my apartment in Ithaca, New York, and a 73-minute recording of a May morning in the woods outside Minocqua, Wisconsin. Last year I made a 37-minute one at dawn on Hog Island in Maine. It was a perfect, windless day; the only background noises at all are the ocean and one shrimp boat going by.

Northern Parula

All these ambient sound recordings are now linked on one webpage. As I get each recording up, I’m linking it to the birds you can hear. If you enter any bird name on the "Search Birds" button above on this or any page of my website, the resulting species page shows up to 12 photos of it and, if I’ve taken more than that, a link to the rest. Each species page also links to all my radio programs about that bird, and also to any sound recordings I’ve made of it. Some of these can make a pleasing background soundtrack when your day needs a bit of nature.