If the “blue marble” view of earth from space taught us anything, it was that global is local. The sounds of wild places anywhere on earth are, for each of us, the sounds of home.
Here in the northern latitudes we make our way through these waning months of winter in relative quiet. Most songsters are elsewhere or dormant. Stand outdoors to listen in the cold brightness of the afternoon, you might hear the tapping of a woodpecker, the croak of a passing raven, rasping the air with its wings. From the trees near the feeders, there is the occasional wind-up call of a goldfinch, the earnest nert of a nuthatch, the chickadees’ spare, two-note song. Depending on where you live, coyotes, wolves, owls and (for a lucky few) the crackling sounds of northern lights accompany the night. The dawn comes late, its chorus made of colors in crystalline air.
Although any time is good, this is a perfect time to dip into Xeno-canto. This massive crowd-sourced online archive of wildlife recordings is best known to birders. And no wonder: most of its more than 700,000 entries are devoted to the vocalizations of native bird species around the globe, in all their variations and regional dialects. It is a tremendous, often cited, resource for research. Among the recordings’ many applications has been use by BirdNet, a deep artificial neural network (DNN) that builds on traditional survey techniques by extracting species richness from large audio datasets, using variation in bird diversity as a metric for environmental change. Xeno-canto is also a favorite go-to for birders honing their skills in identification by sound. (For example, Jonathon Jongsma has curated a set titled Sounds of Minnesota Birds on the site, which contains 682 recordings of 296 species.) A great feature is that the site is searchable not only by taxonomy but also by region, so that a user could see a list of species recorded at a given location.
But you don’t need to be a research scientist or serious birder to love this site. In 2013, Xeno-canto added the category of soundscapes. Dr. Bob Planqué, Associate Professor in Mathematical Biology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, is one of the founders (together with Willem-Pier Vellinga) and administrators of Xeno-canto. Says Planqué, “The idea to introduce them was to make it possible to host general recordings that did not have a focal species. There was a big study together with Joe Tobias and Nathalie Seddon which had about a thousand such recordings, with good data. I think that was the main incentive to introduce soundscapes.”
With over 11,000 uploaded to date, many hours could be well spent on your own auditory adventures through these soundscapes, but the selected sampling shared here can give you a taste. It’s long: over 2 hours, so you can have a marathon listening session on headphones, or drop in and out as you like. Put it on speaker and transform the house.
To listen is a relief, and not just as an antidote to a little seasonal sensory deprivation. The people who have captured these recordings around the world have sought out places where the habitat is such that they might expect to find native species, often in abundance; places where the sounds of humankind do not dominate, in many cases can’t even be heard. By extension, even when the recordists’ express purpose was to record birds, what is reflected in many of these recordings is ecological health.
We have heard so much about the canary in the coal mine, by its silence flagging our attention to things gone wrong. Maybe it is equally important to calibrate our awareness and actions to the profound rightness of a bird or other wild creature thriving in its natural habitat. The soundscapes of Xeno-canto inform our instincts. They help us to recognize what our home sounds like in its natural state—the interwoven, highly-developed “beyondness” of other species and untrammeled places, where that blue marble still manages to support a diversity of life.
At its simplest, each soundtrack is found sound: a place, a sliver of time, a microphone. By making it available to all, Xeno-canto’s administrators and recordists around the world have provided a phenomenal resource. Along the way, they have also provided something else in short supply: hope. If we are to reverse the declines in biodiversity happening across too many taxa, this is the kind of initiative and community that will make it happen. Somehow, even reading the short bios of Xeno-canto contributing members (alphabetized by first name) adds some extra minutes of daylight to a late-winter day.
Featured in this compilation
This sampling features selected, unaltered recordings by the following recordists, in order of appearance. Please check out each link for the complete entry on Xeno-canto, which includes a sonogram (a visual representation of the recording with time on the horizontal axis and pitch on the vertical axis); a map showing where the recording was made; the latitude, longitude, elevation, and time of recording; and links to recordings focused on each named species (good for figuring out what you’re hearing on the soundtrack). Note that this compilation is not intended as a “best of.” There is much more to discover in the site’s soundscape archive, where you can find audio recordings ranging from a “female European otter and five cubs walking down a stream by the River Minho” in Portugal to “a silent female barred owl perched in an oak tree, being mobbed by multiple passerines” in Wyalusing, Wisconsin. Whether you hear it or not, it’s reassuring to know that it’s there.
00:00—1:11 Recordist Jacob Saucier. https://xeno-canto.org/404598. Dawn chorus of lowland tropical forest. Madre de Dios, CICRA-Los Amigos Research Station, Peru. Heard: Sclater’s Antwren, Black-faced Antbird, Dusky-throated Antshrike, Plain-winged Antshrike, Screaming Piha, White-winged Shrike-Tanager, Dusky-capped Greenlet, Gray Antwren.
1:11—15:13 Recordist Jarek Matusiak. https://xeno-canto.org/534813. Morning, wolf in the background. Gmina Stary Brus (near Kołacze), włodawski, lubelskie. Poland. Heard: Fieldfare, Common Wood Pigeon, Redwing, Common Crane, Black Woodpecker, Northern Raven, Common Merganser, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Jay, Eurasian Wren, Mistle Thrush, Canis Lupus.
15:14—16:42 Recordist Lars Edenius. https://xeno-canto.org/565806 Soundscape from boreal forest-wetland mosaic. Malå Municipality, Västerbottens län, Northern Sweden. Heard: Black-throated Loon, Black Grouse.
16:42—23:30 Recordist Meena Haribal. https://xeno-canto.org/641679 In the wooded area of the Curtain Fig Tree National Park near Yungabarra. Australia. Heard: Spotted Catbird, Eastern Whipbird, Australian Golden Whistler.
23:30—26:21 Recordist Russ Wigh. https://xeno-canto.org/656289 Skidaway Island, Chatham County, GA USA. Freshwater lagoon and marsh adjacent to a brackish river on the coast of Georgia. Heard: In the background the listener can hear nestlings begging in the remainder of an egret rookery. The loud croaking call is Wood Stork. Northern Cardinals and Red-wing Blackbirds are prominent.
26.21—26.57 Recordist Lars Edenius https://xeno-canto.org/663574. Songthrush calling in rain and thunderstorm. Överrödå, Umeå, Västerbottens län, Sweden. Heard: Songthrush.
26:57—33:08 Recordist Hannu Varkki https://xeno-canto.org/664669. A morning by the sea. Uutela, Helsinki, Uusimaa. Finland. Heard: Barnacle Goose, Arctic Tern, White Wagtail, European Herring Gull, Long-tailed Duck, Common Sandpiper, European Goldfinch, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Common Eider, Mew Gull.
33:08—2:20:02 Recordist Cedric Mroczko. https://xeno-canto.org/727260 Dawn chorus. Salvezines, Aude, Occitanie. France. Heard: Wood Pigeon, Song Thrush, Eurasian Blackbird, Tawny Owl, European Robin, Mistle Thrush, Eurasian Wren, Eurasian Jay, Iberian Woodpecker, Common Firecrest, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Bullfinch, Goldcrest, Coal Tit, European Crested Tit, Greater Woodpecker, Black Woodpecker, Common Chaffinch, Raven, Short-toed Treecreeper, Red-billed Chough, Eurasian Nuthatch, Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit, Eurasian Blue Tit.
2:20:02—2:41:08 Recordist Alan Dalton. https://xeno-canto.org/766454 Extreme passage of nocturnal migrants. Landsort, Nynäshamn Municipality, Stockholms län. Sweden. Heard: Redwing, Song Thrush, Common Blackbird.
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