The Sounds Of Nature

If we listen, music is everywhere. It accompanies us through many milestones in our lives. What would a wedding, funeral or birthday party be without music? It also permeates the ordinary – grocery shopping, driving, holding for the next available operator. Music has the ability to inspire, entertain and express the things that we can’t express in words.

We usually think of music as an expression created by humans. But go outside, away from human sounds and listen to the music of nature. There is a complexity and depth to the sounds of nature that can be just as interesting as a symphony.

If you are a student of those music makers, the birds, frogs and insects, there is a chance you’ve heard Lang Elliot’s recordings. He is one of many who spent hundreds of hours documenting species and their calls. These recordings are popular identification guides. Using them can help you put a name to the chirps, trills and croaks of the outside world.

I’ve listened over and over again to Elliot’s recordings of insects to determine if what I was hearing on summer nights was a snowy tree cricket or a Carolina ground cricket. I’ve repeated calls of birds on my iPod to remember the difference between a yellow warbler and a chestnut-sided warbler.

I know that some understand the challenges of identifying sounds. I also know that many may be thinking, “Who really cares what cricket or what bird is calling?” Isolating and identifying the songs to assign them to an individual species can help us gain a better understanding of the world around us. Whether the listener is an amateur birder listening in their backyard or a scientist collecting data on an endangered species, sound helps to answer those important who, what, where, when, why and how questions of science.

However, there can be another way to listen. How many times have you heard a song – a manmade song – and felt a connection to the music? A connection that made you want to listen to the song repeatedly, learn all the words and sing along? Music is much more than the individual notes played at the right time. Music can both evoke and express feelings. It can celebrate joy, exacerbate anger, sooth pain and bring comfort. It is because we usually listen to music with our whole body and soul rather than just the analytical part of our brains.

We can listen to the songs of nature the same way. We can look past the individual notes and see a whole. This is what Elliot calls a “soundscape.” You don’t need to isolate a sound and identify who is making it to appreciate it. You can go outside and let the sound of summer rush into your ears. You can find joy from the birds singing in the early morning hours, the chorus of frogs at night or the unified chirp of insects outside your bedroom window.

I admit identifying the calls of nature can be overwhelming at times. I’m still learning, and always will be. But I want to know my animal neighbors. I want to recognize the calls of the returning spring migrants in order to celebrate the change of seasons. I want to estimate the population of frogs in order to monitor its rise and fall.

I also want to stop and listen to appreciate nature as a whole with all its complex, working parts, even if I’m not sure who is making the music. So relax at times. Shut off the analytical side of your brain and just listen to the sounds of nature as you would listen to your favorite human-made music. Appreciate the beauty of the music, give credit to the talent of the performer, whoever it is and let it inspire you.

While a walk at Audubon is usually accompanied by the music of nature, animals won’t be the only performers at Audubon this month. On June 15, Audubon’s backyard will come alive with the sound of piano music from Cindy’s Piano Studio. The piano students will perform their pieces in the backyard, with the ponds as a backdrop and the birds as an accompaniment.

This is a great partnership between music and nature – both enhanced by the other. All the pieces of music will have an animal theme. The recital is open to the public and admission is by donation. All donations will benefit Audubon’s educational programs. The recital starts at 2 p.m. and audience members must bring their own lawn chairs or blankets. While we may be able to tolerate a little bit of rain, the instruments can’t. In case of rain we will move inside to the auditorium.

Katie Finch is a naturalist at Audubon.

The Audubon Center & Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, a quarter-mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown and Warren Pa. For more information, call 569-2345 or visit