Twittering of the Birds

photo of Land Between the Lakes road signA question looms with regard to nature soundscapes. And that is “what kind of soundscape is relaxing”? This is a difficult question to answer, especially when it comes to recordings of bird song.

I was just corresponding with my friend Jerry Berrier, about my Woodpecker Interlude blog post. Jerry had this to say: “I loved the subtle natural echo when the woodpecker is drumming. Although it’s all beautiful, it seems to me that there are too many sounds going on simultaneously. I would not find it relaxing, even though I enjoyed listening to it.”

I find this extremely interesting. Given that one of my goals is to put together a collection of bird recordings that I will advertise as “Gentle Bird Songs,” I wonder what the constraints are, what rules I should follow? Does it really have to do with the number of birds singing (= too many birds are a bad thing), or does it have more to do with the nature of the mix and the playback levels?

To help answer this question, I’ve decided to post a recording I call “Twittering of the Birds.” It is a dawn chorus that I recorded last spring at the Woodland Nature Station at Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky. I remember the experience very well. At first light, I looked out over a dew-covered meadow surrounded by forest, with fog hanging low in the valley. Bird song was erupting in all directions. The landscape was extremely dense with sound, although nearly every singing bird was rather far away, with the notable exception of an Eastern Wood-Pewee who whistled from a tree limb overhead during most of the recording:

Dawn chorus at the picnic area of the Woodland Nature Station, 5:20 am, 19 May 2010, Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky. Recorded by Lang Elliott.

Is this soundscape relaxing? Personally, I do find it relaxing, but only if I play it back at a fairly low level. The wood-pewee stands out for sure, but it is not at all overwhelming. But what of all the other bird songs, the rather dense and continuous twittering in the background? Sure, you can hear individuals at times, but there are no periods of complete silence. Of course, there was nothing I could do about the density. This is the way it is in late spring, when male songbirds of nearly every species sing like crazy at the break of dawn.

What is everyone’s reaction? Relaxing? Disturbing? Somewhere in the middle? Please belt it out so I can hear what you have to say!


  1. The sounds are exciting, uplifting, and deeply connecting. I love the transition from the nighttime songs (usually bugs, frogs/toads, some birds) to the daytime songs (as in your recording). The moment the last frog voices is special, and the moment the first day bird sings is special. It’s a new day!

  2. Yes, I find it relaxing in a “ahh it’s finally spring” kind of way. If the birds are closer and louder it’s more exciting than relaxing to me, which is still a good thing in a different way. If there are specific birds I feel compelled to identify them. This one doesn’t make any demands, it just says listen and suggests a beautiful day.

  3. The exchange between you and Wil is key. I find the recording peaceful and relaxing as long as I listen in a meditative frame of mind, letting the sounds flow through me. But if I focus too hard on specific voices or try to ID the callers, then I become more alert/vigilant…still very much enjoying myself, but not exactly relaxed. As for sleeping, distant thunder/rain and a soft frog chorus would be heavenly!

    • Dorothy: I have just the recording for you and I’ll post a sample later today. It’s called “Thundertoads” and features mellow trills of American Toads set against distant thunder. I can’t post it all (it went on for 20 minutes or so before a jet ruined it) but in the last half it rains for awhile. It’s extremely relaxing.

  4. Lang,
    Yes, I think those themes would help me go to sleep. On the blog now, I think the Lae Ontariowave scape and the frog ad cricket choruses would help me sleep the most. If the bird sounds are more subtle, then that would be relaxing. But just bird songs are too joyous and exuberant to induce sleep.

    • Nicholas: It makes sense that recordings made at dusk or in the night would help induce sleep. In contrast, recordings from dawn would naturally be joyous and uplifting. The former would be good for inducing sleep (a winding down of the mind) and the latter for relaxing or stabilizing the mind in preparation for a day of activity. Following this line of reasoning, dawn choruses would make excellent backgrounds for morning meditations . . . simply because that’s when nature provides them.

  5. Lang, if you really want to key your scapes to function such as sleep inducement, could volunteers listen while their brainwaves are read? Perhaps certain scapes induce alpha or beta or other particular waves in our brains. Your naturescapes that find birdsong and bird chatter along with water can hardly help but refresh the spirit. I love them.

    • Sharon: Good idea! Now we need to get some funding from NIH. Once I publish a couple of hundred soundscapes, there will be enough material to draw from to do some kind of study. At a minimum, I could put a large number of track samples online in one place, and then allow people to rate them according to a several variables, such as: Beautiful, Relaxing, Engaging, Gentle . . . etc.

  6. I definitI definitely find this recording relaxing. There is too much going on for me to be able to fall asleep to it, but it does relax me. Very nice work.

    • Nicholas: For falling asleep, do you think it would be best to stick with themes such as the following:
      1) gentle waves washing-in on a lakeshore, with subtle bird sounds in the background
      2) a trickling brook with subtle bird sounds in the background
      3) distant thunder and rain, with or without bird sounds or possibly with a thin frog chorus in the background
      4) any recording with mesmerizing, repetitive elements that are non-obrusive (such as some jungle soundscapes)

  7. Yes, very relaxing. I found the woodpecker interlude relaxing too. I didn’t feel that there was too much going on in either recording for it to be relaxing. As Jerry eludes to, I think if birders are listening and trying to ID all the bird songs/sounds they won’t find it very relaxing. If they listen and relax their minds the experience would be very different.

    • Wil, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Serious birders will probably respond differently from people who know less. I’ve noticed this with my friend Bob McGuire. He’ll listen to a soundscape and immediately wonder what this bird is or what that bird is. The different bird songs set his mind rolling. For Jerry, I think Woodpecker Interlude nudged him into the analytic mode. For others, the very same recording might be experienced a relaxing mix, not evoking the questioning mind.

      So . . . I guess the response depends, at least in part, on the listener and the listener’s state of mind at the moment. That said, I still think it’s useful to categorize soundscape recordings and strive for certain overall effects.

  8. I find this one very relaxing. Not sure how to explain why this one is and the Woodpecker interlude isn’t. I think it’s just the way the souns blend. On the woodpecker interlude, I kept asking myself, “What is that bird?” I wasn’t doing that on this one. PS: I love the wood peewee. Very nice.

  9. I agree with Cindy, Lang. I would love to wake up to that. Even though the wood-pewee is in the foreground it is not overbearing and it compliments the background very well.

    Well done!

  10. Hi Lang, of course “relaxing” has different meanings for different people, and I am only one. If the volume is low then the Pee Wee’s voice is softer and more relaxing for sure. I hate to lose the density of the other birds, however, whom together and farther away are VERY relaxing. They become a whole, like all the instruments playing together in the symphony. What a lovely morning; I am looking forward to the robustness of spring bird songs!

    • It seems that nearly everyone likes this very much and considers it “relaxing,” as I’d hoped. This is good news. But I’ll still be posting others in this category to get even more reactions. Once I create my soundscape titles, they become somewhat “set in stone,” meaning that it’s difficult to go back and change things. So I want to get it right at the outset.

  11. The first reaction I felt was a deep longing for spring. It did not strike me as “too busy” at all. The continuous background becomes that, background music to the soloist, the peewee.
    I loved it and it gave me a warm feeling, like a bowl of soup on a winter’s day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.