Wildlife MusicProject Summary.
People once thought that animals were "dumb" because they could not speak in human language or that the seas were silent because we were unable to hear their sounds. Many still think that birds sing for people. We now know that wild animals communicate with one another and other species in thousands of different sounds. This project will acquaint students and others with many of these sounds. They have definite purposes and can communicate a wide variety of messages, whether territorial, warnings to members of their own species, mating calls or other meanings we have yet to understand. Human activities are having negative effects on the communications of some animals, even causing mortality. This project will encourage appreciation of the great variety of animal sounds, especially those of disappearing species. Means of preventing interference with animal communication and working to reduce human-created noise will be explored.
A chorus of bugles as flocks of Sandhill Cranes take flight, the eerie violin-like songs of Humpback Whales or the croaking of frogs can evoke emotion and deep appreciation. Human response to wildlife songs reflects the universality of music. Virtually all human societies have their own music (see Milius 2001). Just as we are drawn to the sounds of nature, animals have been attracted to human music. The now-extinct Laughing Owl of New Zealand would fly close to a person playing an accordion after dusk, remaining in the vicinity until the music stopped (see Fuller 2001). Researchers in the Pacific Northwest have dangled microphones playing music from their boats and found that dolphins and Killer Whales approached and listened for long periods. The mournful, musical howls of wolves caused fear in the superstitious medieval times, but today they are appreciated as true animal songs, each wolf contributing a slightly different melody. In fact, when a recording of wolf howls was released during the 1970s, the music critic of The New York Times judged the musical talent of each wolf singer. (Wolf Education and Research Center: www.wolfcenter.org provides information on howling.) Songs play an integral role in wildlife communication and survival. Endangered denizens of American grasslands, prairie dogs, also have complex languages, giving different calls to one another to warn of birds of prey, land predators, humans with guns and other threats. Some bird songs, like those of many birds of paradise, stunningly beautiful birds of New Guinea, are so loud and bizarre that they seem to have been electronically produced. They are designed to penetrate dense foliage for long distances. Bellbirds and howler monkeys of Latin America and gibbons of Asia also sing so loudly that the songs carry for miles in the rainforests. Gibbons mate for life and sing duets in whoops that echo through the forest. Many wildlife songs are used to defend territories or to find a mate. Beluga whales and Mountain Lions communicate with one another in bird-like chirps. Elephants are now known to emit deep sounds, inaudible to humans, which carry for great distances to elephant herds miles away (see Payne 1998). Likewise, bats and dolphins emit ultrasonic sounds to find their prey and to navigate. Some of these are audible to the human ear. Many of these species are now listed as Threatened, however (see Endangered and Threatened Species list in the Appendix).
As the world becomes filled with human-made noise, from the giant engines of ships, planes, trucks and earth-moving machines to jet skis, snowmobiles, snow blowers and chainsaws, wildlife songs and calls are being drowned out. Each Humpback Whale has its own individual song. The males vary the songs each year, and females seem to be attracted to the males who emit the most complex songs. Marine mammals emit a great variety of squeaks, hums, squeals and chirps to communicate with one another and echo-locate, but they can be drowned out by ships, motorboats, jet skis and other human-made sounds. It is critical for the survival of these marine mammals that they be able to communicate.
Some ship noises are even lethal to marine mammals. The US Navy has been testing an anti-submarine sonar called Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS). Powerful sonar waves are broadcast underwater to test a means of detecting quiet enemy submarines (see White 2000a). These sonar waves can travel hundreds of miles and be extremely loud. Humpback Whale males have stopped singing or moved away when these waves were broadcast. More ominously, testing in 1995 off the coast of Greece coincided with an unusual stranding of Cuvier's Beaked Whales, resulting in the deaths of these seldom-seen whales. In March 2000, Ken Balcomb, a biologist familiar with sonar, was present in the Bahamas when a stranding occurred at the same time Navy LFAS tests were taking place nearby. Fifteen whales stranded, including Dense Beaked Whales, a Minke Whale and a Spotted Dolphin. All washed up on the shores, and when pushed back into deep water, they were unable to remain upright, clearly unbalanced, disoriented and apparently in pain. Without their hearing, they cannot find their way in the ocean. Nine died. Along with Harvard biologist Darlene Ketton, Ken Balcomb performed necropsies on several whales, finding their ears full of blood. In one case, hemorrhages striped the lungs. Further testing revealed that a whale had suffered a concussion, apparently the result of acute trauma from pressure (White 2000a). A press conference organized by the Animal Welfare Institute following these findings featured Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and other whale experts, who attested to the fact that LFAS is reckless, unnecessary and lethal to whales. Soon after, the Navy canceled testing of active sonar off New Jersey and also its scheduled tests on Sperm Whales in the Azores (White 2000a). The Navy has not cancelled these tests altogether, however, claiming that more research by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is needed to reach a final conclusion.
Bird reproduction has also been affected by the sounds of highway or airplane traffic. Researchers have found that male birds living near such loud noises cannot hear their own songs or those of their rivals and, in a few generations, begin singing songs so different from their instinctive ones that other males do not respond, nor do females, preventing reproduction. Frogs living near highways have also been found to lose their natural calls in the din of traffic noise. It is not known whether these animals have suffered hearing damage or are simply unable to hear fellow creatures over the din. Much of the noise created by human machines could be reduced or eliminated with muffling devices. Design of machines that will not interfere with animal communication should become a priority.
o Listen to recordings, such as “Music of the Birds,” listed below. Visit websites that play animal sounds and songs. One, intended for visually-impaired people, plays bird songs: www.nhest.org; and www.naturesongs.com has many types of natural music. The largest collection of natural sounds in the world is at the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (www.birds.cornell.edu). It has 150,000 recordings. The British Library's national sound archive has more than 130,000 recordings: www.bl.uk/collections/sound-archive/wild.html). The Nature Sounds Society website (www.naturesounds.org) gives information on other sites. For an academic approach, consult the site of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology: interact.uoregon.edu/MediaLit/wfae/home/. Watch wildlife films that include songs and calls, especially those of threatened and endangered species, such as birds of paradise, whales, wolves and elephants (see list below and Video section). Write an essay on the songs of one group of species, such as whales, or a particular species, describing the variety of the songs or calls.
o Compare the wildlife sounds heard in environments far from highways and airports with those near them. Take walks in several types of habitats with experts who can identify wildlife sounds, such as frog chirps and croaks, bird songs and insect noises. Tape record the sounds heard and count the number of species in a quiet habitat versus those heard near a busy highway or airplane flight path. Note that each species' song can be heard in normal conditions because of its own frequency and rhythm. Discuss the effect of noise on these species, and describe the various calls heard without interference.
o Learn about means of lessening human-created noise. Write the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, DC (see Organizations list, Teachers’ Aids section) for information on noise pollution and how existing engines can be muffled for quieter substitutes. For example, electric-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers make far less noise than gas-powered ones. Airplane engines that are quieter than those currently in use have been designed, but no strong government mandate has encouraged their manufacture. Automobile and truck engines can be made quieter, and certain road surfaces can decrease traffic sounds. Snowmobiles that emit far less noise have been manufactured, but without legislation mandating their use, there is little demand. Consult the Internet for organizations working actively to require that quieter machines be in use. Write a report on the need for noise pollution equipment.
o Research the effects of snowmobiles, jet skis and all-terrain vehicles on wildlife. Contacting various organizations, including the National Parks and Conservation Association (see Organizations list in Teachers’ Aids section) for information on their work to keep these vehicles out of the national parks because of the negative effects the noise has on wildlife. Find out the decibel levels of various vehicles that are allowed in wildlife areas and off-road wilderness parks and their effects on various species of wildlife.
o The US Navy testing of anti-submarine sonar, Low Frequency Active Sonar (LFAS), described above, has been shown to be extremely dangerous to some marine mammals and drives others away from their traditional migration and feeding areas. Write the Animal Welfare Institute for more information on this program and how to help stop it.
Books and Publications
Beland, Pierre. 1996. Beluga. A Farewell to Whales. Lyons & Burford
Publishers, London, UK.
Elliott, Lang. 1999. Music of the Birds. A Celebration of Bird Song.
Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA. (With CD-ROM.)
Gorman, James. 2002. Developing an Ear for Nature's Untuned Orchestra.
The New York Times, Jan. 25.
Milius, Susan. 2001. Face the Music. Natural History, Dec./Jan., Vol. 110, No.
10, pages 48-57.
Payne, Katy. 1998. Silent Thunder. In the Presence of Elephants. Simon &
Schuster, New York.
Payne, Roger. 1995. Among Whales. Scribner’s, New York.
Pratt, Ambrose. 1955. The Lore of the Lyrebird. Robertson & Mullens,
Short, Lester L. 1993. The Lives of Birds. Birds of the World and Their
Behavior. American Museum of Natural History. Henry Holt & Co., New York.
Snow, David. 1982. The Cotingas. Bellbirds, Umbrellabirds and other species.
British Museum of Natural History. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell
University Press, New York.
Van Tyne, Josselyn and Andrew J. Berger. 1971. Fundamentals of Ornithology.
Dover Publications, New York.
Walters, Mark. Jerome. 1989. Courtship in the Animal Kingdom. Anchor Books,
Doubleday, New York.
Whitten, Tony. 1982. The Gibbons of Siberut. J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London,
Thomas, Bill. 1976. The Swamp. W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York.
White, B. 2000. U.S. Navy Kills Whales in the Bahamas. AWI Quarterly, Summer,
Vol. 29, No. 3, pages 6-7.
The following represent only a few of the many films concerning animal calls and music. See the Video section of this book for further listings. Also, many audiocassettes are available with wildlife sounds of various types.
"Attenborough in Paradise." 1 hour. Nature (PBS). BBC. 1996.
David Attenborough visits New Guinea and describes the birds of paradise and
their extraordinary calls.
"Crane River." 1 hour. National Audubon Society. PBS Video. 1988.
Hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes migrate in the Midwest, bugling,
calling and courtship displays, which resemble minuets.
"Gentle Giants of the Pacific: Humpback Whales" 1 hour. Sierra Club Series.
Wood Knapp Video. The amazing songs of these whales are heard in this film.
"In the Company of Whales" 90 minutes. Discovery Channel. (VHS & CD‑ROM.)
1992. Following great whales and hearing their sounds with zoologist Roger
Payne and other experts, insights are given on whale behavior and biology.
"Jaguar. Year of the Cat." 1 hour. Nature (PBS). Telenova Productions. 1995.
Filmed in the rainforests of Belize, the daily life of Jaguars is seen in
remarkable close-ups accompanied by the sounds these cats make as they walk
in the forest or lap water in a stream, with insect and bird songs in the
"National Audubon Society's Video Guides to North American Birds." Five
one-hour cassettes. National Audubon Society. These videos show and record
all species in the United States and Canada for which photo documentation
exists. Audiocassettes of almost all the native breeding birds are available
from this organization.
"Wild Wolves." 1 hour. BBC. NOVA. PBS. 1997. This film examines the true
nature of wolves, their behavior and ecology and lets us listen to their
Catalog of books and CDs with audio samples: www.earthear.com