Birdsong, the Climate Crisis, and Sonic Ecologies of Loss
Writing desks are often perched against windows, inviting us into a state of reverie from staring into an endless sky. Another element that lends an almost spiritual orientation to our thoughts is the sound of birds chirping, a sound that is taken for granted but the absence of which can be stark. In the 1960s, ecologist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring evocatively spoke of the terrifying silence of a landscape devoid of birdsong. Using a recording made the morning after the cyclone Amphan made landfall in West Bengal on 20 May 2020, I explore the idea that birds respond to their immediate semiotic context through birdsong—a language of urgency that holds important lessons for planetary futures. I suggest that this avian orchestra can be a barometer for ecological health as well as a call to reflect on migration, displacement, reorientation, and the vicissitudes of anthropogenic global change.
I think of birdsong as a framework for understanding avian materialities that are reflective of our relationship with the natural world. This framework, I propose, can be used to reflect on the sonic ecologies of Bengal after Amphan, a climatic event that was indicative of an increasingly warming world. Can sonic deterritorialisation hold cues towards reimagining an age of global migration? Using the avian orchestra on the morning after Amphan as a playground for future imaginings, I draw our attention to nature’s indicators that are both warnings and celebrations of the complex intermeshing of life processes. This is about uncovering the story of an avian soundscape and allowing for the opportunity to be surprised, even astonished, at the interconnections between humans and other biological organisms.
The work of musician and soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause tells us that animals claim their frequency in the sonic spectrum. Figuring as warning signals, mating calls, or threats to territory, this multitudinous simultaneity of sounds in different registers and intensities produces a “biophony” that Krause defines as “sounds emerging from nonhuman, non-domestic biological sources”[i]. Biophony carries information produced through millions of years of evolution to create a species call that is a survival mechanism as well as a marker for behaviour recognition, capable of indicating such things as food availability and danger.
The idea that animal sounds, coexisting in a dense ecosystem, can be mapped onto different registers and pitches to establish a network of communication with other creatures of their species (be it for warnings or information about food and water) through the forging of a “sonic civility”[ii], was proposed in Krause’s The Great Animal Orchestra (2012). Krause reiterates the sacrality of these sounds in that they allow life to exist. Human activity, industrialisation, deforestation, technification, the drone of airplanes, and the whine of engines interfere with the syncing of different creature sounds (what Krause refers to as their synchronicity), contributing to long-term impacts on their habitats, migration routes, and breeding habits.
Bird populations across the globe are plummeting, with State of the World’s Birds Report 2022 stating the decline of 48 per cent of extant bird species. A 2020 study[iii] notes that a combination of urbanisation, deforestation, radiation, and use of pesticides has resulted in the tragic decline of the house sparrow in different parts of India. The imbricated and parallel processes of urban habitats intruding into natural ones and the virtual manufacturing of geophonic sounds[iv]—like in Rainymood.com or YouTube videos of flowing water serving as an ersatz substitute for a ‘natural’ experience—points to the multiple temporalities of habitation and the insatiable human need to conquer the environment. For Krause, “humans… were drawn to geophonic voices because they contained fundamental messages: those of food, a sense of place, and a spiritual connection”[v]. Now, the calm that was traditionally produced through communion with nature is replicated and directed towards work, meditation, study, or sleep. The sonification of the natural environment allows us to ‘bring the forest home’ as a token of natural plenitude, like collecting pinecones or seashells, even as our alienation from nature increases.
The idea that the pandemic momentarily stalled the effects of climate change across the world was challenged by the super cyclone Amphan in Odisha and West Bengal. The fact that a cyclone of this scale was an outcome of global warming, as reported by climate scientists[vi], made all forms of life precarious. While montages of devastation filled our minds and screens, less was said about Amphan’s impact on the state’s avifauna. The morning after the devastation, I heard an avian orchestra come to life from a high-rise in Ballygunge, Kolkata. The density of the bird population there was already high because of a green stretch in the government housing estate opposite our building. Parrots were found in profusion, as well as kites, pigeons, crows, stonechats, warblers, and robins, all maintaining an acoustic harmony with their surroundings. That day, though, the sounds were varied, heterogeneous, the common chorus broken through a sonority of guest appearances.
Listening to birds is always a linguistic encounter coded with information in an unfamiliar tongue. For Andrew Whitehouse, birdsong belongs to the category of “sounds as indexical and iconic”[vii] that heighten the stability of the regular rhythms of life. His study found that birdsong offers order and structure to the “temporality of days and seasons”[viii], often carrying resonances with the respondents’ biographies, whose rhythms would emplace their own temporalities. But what caught my attention this time was the Whitehousean idea of “anxious semiotics” presented by the avian orchestra which was a significant departure from the normal.
Birdsong brings a sense of familiarity that anchors people’s sense of place. My recording, however, carries within it a trace of anxiety, gesturing towards a deep rupture. On one level, the unexpected polyphony of birds in an urban environment introduces an element of surprise. But here, the break from a regularised rhythm was an unconscious reminder of a dissonant ecosystem, enabling the imagination of an urban dystopia. This then was an intimation of the looming uncertainty characteristic of the Anthropocene. The shock of a catastrophe or an irregularity in nature can draw closer attention, says Whitehouse, “to habits and regularities”[ix], a reminder of our own destructiveness. A closer understanding of sonic ecologies makes us recognise the ways in which we have drifted from the natural world. That moment of recognition goes on to become a moment of deep alienation.
At the same time, if birdsong usually relays information in relation to the environment, the newly configured birdcalls which I discerned that morning also signified a reorientation. With eggs, nests, and habitats destroyed by uprooted trees or blown away by the force of the wind, birds that were previously strangers to the area, migrants with different birdcalls, feathers, wingspans and mating patterns, would have found themselves looking for refuge.[x] Birds who found themselves displaced by the cyclone had probably mixed with the local avian population and ended up in new environments, to which they had to adapt through vocalisations that would mark territory, enable them to identify other birds of their species, and help reorient them in their altered circumstances. And even as these new entrants would take their time to settle into the great animal orchestra through adaptation to different frequencies on the sonic spectrum, they would assert themselves through their song, drawing attention to newer, safer habitats and new spatialities.
These avian responses to anthropogenic disaster also represent forms of ethical relationality and provide lessons on coexistence. Interpreting cues from soundscapes furnished a way for early man to live alongside animals. The increasing distance of humans from the world of biophony, especially birdsong, marks our alienation from our own surroundings and produces a semiotic anxiety that betrays our ruthlessness and, to some extent, our sympathies, demanding an ethical reorientation.
Acoustic ecologies can tell us what we have lost in the Anthropocene and what we can save. As critical indicators of ecological health, listening to birds can not only expand our understanding of our world but also of ourselves and our species-centeredness, besides helping us imagine more expansive ways of relating to each other. This practice can reacquaint us with a more open, humble, and elemental way of being, in consonance with ethnomusicologist Steven Feld’s reminder that “human relationships are reflected in the ecology and natural order of the forest”[xi].
[i] Fischer, Tobias. ‘Everything Is Wrong: Bernie Krause’s Concept of ‘Biophony’. The MIT Press Reader, July 30 2020. https://thereader.mitpress.mit.edu/everything-is-wrong-bernie-krauses-concept-of-biophony/
[ii] Spiegel, Alex; Rosin, Hannah; Krause, Bernie. ‘The Last Sound’. Invisibilia Podcast, NPR, March 8 2020. https://www.npr.org/transcripts/821648089
[iii] Sharma, Pratibha and Binner, Manpreet. ‘The decline of population of house sparrow in India’. International Journal of Agricultural Science, Vol 5, 2020.
[iv] Geophony has been described by Krause as “natural sounds springing from nonbiological subcategories such as wind, water, earth movement, and rain” and as “the first sounds on earth”. See Krause, Bernie. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. London: Profile books. 37.
[v] Ibid., 38.
[vi] Ghosh, Sahana. ‘Understanding cyclone behaviour in a changing climate.’ Mongabay, July 11 2022
[vii] Whitehouse, Andrew. ‘Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World’. Environmental Humanities, Vol 6, 2020. 62.
[viii] Ibid., 64.
[ix] Ibid., 61.
[x] Chatterjee, Tanmay. ‘Amphan carries hundreds of oceanic birds into mainland Bengal; frigatebirds dying of exhaustion and hunger’. Hindustan Times, May 29 2020.
[xi] Feld, Steven. Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, Third Edition. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 2012. 45.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Piya Srinivasan is an independent socio-legal researcher based in Kolkata. She holds a doctorate from the Centre for Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University. As research consultant with Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, she worked on the efficacy of legal and policy frameworks addressing climate disaster in the Sundarbans. She is currently editing an anthology on climate change impacts in South Asia, in collaboration with MCRG, to be published by Yoda Press. Her research interests converge on the social life of law, migration, ecology, print culture, and society. She moonlights as an editor and freelance writer and has written book reviews for India Today and features articles for Mumbai Mirror. She loves nature walks and watching snails with her young child.