“One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is the spring.”
September 25, 2012 7:55 AM   Subscribe

The great naturalist Aldo Leopold took detailed notes in his journals every morning before sunrise, logging the birds he heard calling on his farm in rural Wisconsin. Now, using journals from the Aldo Leopold archives, and bird calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, researchers at UW-Madison have replicated what Aldo Leopold would have heard one morning on his farm in the 1940s autoplays bird calls.
posted by ChuraChura (24 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
In other news, bird people are the best kind of crazy.
posted by The Bellman at 7:58 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I read this, listened, and thought "So, what's the big deal?". After a moment I realized that the "big deal" is that I get to hear that pretty much every spring, summer, and fall day here in the woods in Michigan where I live. The sadness comes with the realization that, for many people, this is an unusual thing. You folks have GOT to get out of the city!
posted by HuronBob at 8:04 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe I need much bigger speakers, or that time machine, to experience this.

When I was a kid, often sleeping outside -- in the early 1950s in North Carolina -- the dawn chorus was total immersion in sound, birds everywhere for miles, not this one-at-a-time with a faint chorus far in the background.
posted by hank at 8:09 AM on September 25, 2012

HuronBob - even in rural Wisconsin where Aldo Leopold's farm is, today you apparently hear traffic from the nearby interstate and a different assortment of species today than in 1940. The ornithological community has changed, even if you're still lucky enough to be in a place with lots of bird songs (and listening to red-winged blackbirds still sends me back to the pond I used to play by in Ann Arbor).
posted by ChuraChura at 8:10 AM on September 25, 2012

Love this post. Brings back childhood memories of rural life and also my Dad's love of Aldo Leopold.

And my cat just went bonkers listening to the recording.
posted by Isadorady at 8:15 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Love this. The Mockingbirds start up right around sunrise and man alive, they're an inventive bunch.

Blue Jay shrieks are also evocative of childhood for me - we never had them around our house in suburban Chicago (that I recall), but visiting family in Florida I used to marvel at them up in the giant live oak in my grandparent's yard.

Oh, that's beautiful stuff. Thanks for posting it!
posted by jquinby at 8:34 AM on September 25, 2012

Wow, this is cool.
posted by box at 8:37 AM on September 25, 2012

Oh, and:

But the dawn chorus that Leopold heard in 1940 no longer exists at the shack, Temple explains. The mix of species today is different due to changes in the landscape and changes in the bird community around the shack.

...this is heartbreaking.
posted by jquinby at 8:37 AM on September 25, 2012

Aldo Leopold was such a force for good in the conservation battle. Through his work and writings he laid the groundwork for modern conservation science and policy, and redefined conservationism by eloquently adopting the position that natural communities have intrinsic value and deserve to be preserved on their own merits rather than simply as resources for humans to exploit or as recreational areas for human enjoyment. He was one of the first modern thinkers to express the idea (long understood but recently forgotten in our society) that we humans are not masters of nature but rather citizens of it.

Even Michael Soule (considered by many to be the father of modern conservation biology) heavily cited Leopold and his land ethic in his own papers, when he was laying out the foundation of the new field in the 1980s. I highly recommend doing a little reading about the man, perhaps starting with his wikipedia biography or by reading some exerpts from his writings. His book A Sand County Almanac, a book about his experiences and observations in Wisconsin and elsewhere, is largely considered his masterpiece. I've been meaning to read it myself for some time, and this thread finally pushed me to order it so that I can do so.

Thanks for this, ChuraChura. Great post.
posted by Scientist at 8:45 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I grew up in rural Wisconsin, in one of the "sand counties." There were roads nearby, but not so heavily traveled. This is very close to what it sounded like right outside my window in the mornings. What a strange feeling.

(this is driving my cat crazy too. I played it again, and she's sitting next to me, paying strict attention, making the strangest grunting noises.)
posted by louche mustachio at 8:50 AM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

jquinby: "...this is heartbreaking."
Why? Was the birds of 1940 intrinsically better than the ecosystem today?
posted by brokkr at 8:51 AM on September 25, 2012

It's heartbreaking because the only way you can hear this soundscape is through a re-creation. There is no better or worse, but it's gone, and that's a loss.
posted by jquinby at 9:01 AM on September 25, 2012

It's not necessarily heartbreaking. The landscape changes over time; the species that are adapted to a particular type of terrain move on to more hospitable places. The world outside my old window would sound much different now, for instance, not because anything terrible has happened to it, but because the trees my father planted when I was a child grew tall. What once was open plain now has wooded stands, thus attracting species that prefer them. The wildlife in general has changed - wild turkeys are now abundant, there are bears and foxes, deer walk right up to the house.
posted by louche mustachio at 9:02 AM on September 25, 2012

brokkr: Why? Was the birds of 1940 intrinsically better than the ecosystem today?

brokkr, that's a really interesting question and answering it requires a value judgement that was one of Leopold's signature contributions to the modern conservational outlook. One of the fundamental tenets of conservation biology anyway is that natural communities have intrinsic value and that more complex communities, communities which reflect billions of years of slow ecological progress, are better than the stark, simplified, unstable and disturbed communities that tend to exist after the disruptive effects of human development have taken their toll. Leopold at least would say that yes, the ecosystem of 1940 (including its birds) was better than that of today inasmuch as it was more intact, more complex, more diverse, and more nuanced than what we have now. Here's a quote of his from A Sand County Almanac that I think speaks to the question you ask:
Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of passenger pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure, in our hearts, that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add as much to the glory of the spring?
Of course it is possible to come to the conclusion that the destruction of the ecosystem that Leopold witnessed in his lifetime, and which continues to this day at an ever-accelerating pace, is a worthwhile price to pay in exchange for the benefits that we have received through technological progress. I personally think that it's a position that is much easier to justify when it it taken in ignorance of the full splendor of the natural community that surrounds us and the full scope of the destruction that we are wreaking upon it, especially if one is willing to rationalize the high price paid elsewhere in exchange for the personal benefits which make one's own life easier. I find it hard to really face the situation we find ourselves in with an open mind and a willingness to accept difficult and uncomfortable conclusions and to then take the comforting stance that the world we are building is worth the price we are paying for it. That's a personal stance, and I can respect that it's not an inevitable or objective conclusion, but it's a stance that I find compelling and persuasive and worth fighting for and trying to persuade others to fight for.
posted by Scientist at 9:10 AM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

Agree with louche mustachio - we should be happy that there are any birds left at all. Even the hoot of the lowly pigeon sounds better than the stridulations of radioactive cockroaches...
posted by aeshnid at 9:14 AM on September 25, 2012

Leopold at least would say that yes, the ecosystem of 1940 (including its birds) was better than that of today inasmuch as it was more intact, more complex, more diverse, and more nuanced than what we have now.

Not necessarily. The land around the shack is in much "better" shape than it was when he was restoring it in the 30's and 40's. The land around the land around the shack is overgrown compared to what it was then, so the bird community has likely shifted away from grassland-dominated species, and certainly the land around the land around the land around the shack is, in general, supporting a less diverse community. But probably best to read the whole book before making blanket statements about WWLD.
posted by one_bean at 9:32 AM on September 25, 2012

one_bean, I was generalizing the first part of brokkr's question and applying it to the state of the ecosystem as a whole, which I took to be the question that he was getting at. It's a certainty that there are isolated areas of the world in which natural communities are in better shape than they were in the 1940s, and perhaps the area around Leopold's old house is one of them, but it's equally certain that this is not the global trend. I think the point stands in general even if it doesn't apply to the specific case of the area around Leopold's house, though I'll admit it is possible that I misinterpreted brokkr's question.
posted by Scientist at 9:41 AM on September 25, 2012

In fact I think maybe I did misinterpret it. I was taking brokkr's use of the word "ecosystem" in its technical sense, encompassing the sum total of all the biotic and abiotic members, factors, and processes occurring over a fairly large region of the world -- a more general term than would be used to describe the area immediately surrounding Leopold's house or the birds living in that area, which would be more properly referred to as a habitat or community, respectively.

I realize that most people don't normally make sharp distinctions between those terms and perhaps brokkr was referring only to the bird community existing in the area around Leopold's house, in which case it may indeed be the case that today's community is healthier and "better" than the one which was there when he was making his observations in the 1940s.

I may well have inappropriately generalized his question and if that's the case then I apologize. I think the judgement I was trying to highlight is still an interesting one and one that's worth critically considering and about which Aldo Leopold had a lot of important things to say, but it may not have been a relevant answer to brokkr's query.
posted by Scientist at 9:49 AM on September 25, 2012

One of the weirdest parts of living where I live now is the distinct lack of bird song.

I grew up in a semi-rural area in the East (and my parents still live there) and it is a cacophony of birds essentially the entire day.

Where I live now is a city (but not a particularly big one) in the PNW and the birds are simply not the same.
I can't work out if it's where I am in the town (in a developed area with "wild" areas surrounding it), the fact that the birds are different (are songbirds more prevalent in the East?) or some other factor I haven't considered.

Either way, I miss those birds.
posted by madajb at 9:50 AM on September 25, 2012

madajb, it doesn't take as much development as you might think to drive out birds. If you live anywhere that could be characterized as "urban" it's likely that almost all of the birds around you are crows, pigeons, and house sparrows. Also, urban areas have higher human background noise (mostly from cars) which not only is bad for songbirds because it prevents them from communicating with each other but also masks whatever birdsong might remain. Birds as a class are very sensitive to habitat disruption, moreso than mammals for instance.
posted by Scientist at 9:54 AM on September 25, 2012

There's a nice monument to Leopold in New Mexico's Gila National Forest, where he founded the world's first wilderness area in 1924, just twelve years after New Mexico became a US State. The Aldo Leopold Wilderness remains one of the wildest, most untouched areas in the nation, just as he must have hoped. Check the link above for photos -- it's a fantastic place.

Leopold was a man of exceptional wisdom and vision. A lack of people like him -- and leaders willing to listen -- has cost us everything.
posted by vorfeed at 11:54 AM on September 25, 2012

I try to read Sand County Almanac once every five years or so, it's one of my favorite books. Thanks for this post.
posted by Divine_Wino at 11:59 AM on September 25, 2012

If you live anywhere that could be characterized as "urban" it's likely that almost all of the birds around you are crows, pigeons, and house sparrows.

It's not really 'urban'. It's a development of mid-60s homes on quarter-acre lots.
But a half-mile in one direction is a nature conservancy preserve, and up the hill is some second-growth forest which I figure are more attractive to birds.

So we get some Western Meadowlarks in the spring, some juncos, there's a resident scrub jay, and a tree full of LBJs.
So we do get some tweets and chirps.

But I do miss the overwhelming noise of my parent's place.
posted by madajb at 1:34 PM on September 25, 2012

I was surprised to discover there's already an open Cornell Lab of Ornithology post, so I'll just put this here: help train Merlin, a tool for automated bird identification in photos by drawing boxes around pictures of birds.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:23 AM on September 28, 2012

« Older The World of C86   |   Rapscallion was robbed. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments