May 2021

Dawn Chorus Project

NOTE: The 2021 Dawn Chorus Project runs May 1 - 31. Participants can join and contribute recordings at any time during that period.

UPDATE 4/29/21: The new Dawn Chorus app will be further expanded by the just-announced "Sonic Feather" art/science exploration, to be discussed in a future article.

The sudden reduction in human-created noise during the Lockdown Spring of 2020 revealed that rather than the season becoming "silent" as Rachel Carson long-ago feared, its sounds instead became an unmistakeable, exuberant, ubiquitous force of nature. Once the humans and their machines turned quiet, the daily "dawn chorus" began reverberating unimpeded around the planet. And not only did hobbyist bird-watcher/listeners notice, so, too, did bird-song recordists, who started documenting the global phenomenon with newly available clarity and fidelity. Thus was the Dawn Chorus Project[1] begun, spearheaded by scientists and volunteers associated with the Biotopia[2] museum in Munich, Germany, and inspired by Bernie Krause[3], the "founding parent of soundscaping".

Ornithologists and nature-sound enthusiasts have been recording avian vocalizations for years, of course, as several articles on this website have discussed. But with the advent of a quieter world and high-quality recording devices called cell phones in everyone's pockets with built-in, near-instant upload capabilities, the possibilties of an international citizen science endeavor became evident. No headphones or specialized microphones needed; simply point the phone out the window, off the porch, or across the street, and add your local choir members to the global, harmonious celebration of sunrise.

Released in late April 2021, there's now "an app for that", too! Available free for both iOS[4] and Android[5], the excellent Dawn Chorus mobile app is designed to work with the sound files our cell phones can produce, and add them automatically to the rapidly increasing Chorus archive and also to the maps being generated from it. The built-in voice/note/speech recording hardware and software of most phones on the market can do the job needed here, and there are, of course, a number of quality 3rd-party recording apps. However, the majority of Dawn Chorus Project participants will find they have what they need when they download the dedicated app, and that its interface is clear and intuitive. Every technical detail of what is happening under the hood is fully explained in the Recording Instructions[6], but with the app it's just "point and click". It even works offline.

The motto of the Project, "When people are silent, nature makes itself heard", reveals the fantastic work which has been done by pioneers in this field, having had previously to seek quiet locations away from cars, planes, chainsaws, and even barking/mooing/etc. domesticated animals. It was a keynote address by the well-qualified author of The Petersen Guides to Bird Song, Nathan Pieplow[7], at the April 2021 Godwit Days Festival, that prompted this review and your reviewer's participation in the Dawn Chorus Project. As Nathan explains toward the end of his excellent presentation[8] (around 39:30), while there is general agreement about how to describe the physical appearance of bird species, there is precious little uniformity on how to characterize their extensive vocalizations. And even less about what those many sounds might mean! He encourages all of us to become recordists more than photographers, and thus make a needed contribution to our hobby and to the science such reports can generate.

Incidentally, for those who really want to improve their recording capabilities and get the added ability to create visualizations ("spectrograms") of bird sounds they record, he recommends Song Sleuth[9] (free), which is better at recording than automatic identification. iPhone users might prefer SpectrumView[10] (with a free "light" version), which is more technical, but does not purport to identify songs, only record and analyze any sound.

Intrigued by these notions? Want to hear what 2020-21's Dawn Chorus Project sounds like? Their interactive map[11] (best on Chrome) allows us to hear uploaded recordings from global locations and participants, updated in real time. Just as this reviewer has argued for a "virtual sightings" list, perhaps it's time to introduce "virtual hearings"? Listen carefully, there will be a quiz.

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