Producing Recognizable Spring Soundscapes

Paul ten Have

note: some of the internet links provided in the text may not be working properly

Most members of society are probably aware that Spring is the time when birds sing most prominently. For many, however, the spring soundscape is something like an undifferentiated totality, a background of just 'birds singing'. Bird songs may then be heard as offering a pleasant auditive background, a sign of the new life of spring, or an annoying disturbance in the early morning. For some, members of the category birder, the same sounds are available as a collection of songs by specific kinds of birds defining and defending their respective territories. For them, the songs are documents of the breeding presence of members of specific species (1). They may, therefore, define landscapes in terms of their fitting soundscapes, listen to the hearable totality as fitting the time of the day and the development of the bird populations this year and this (type of) place. By training their ability to hear bird sounds as differentiated by species, they can draw a wide range of conclusions in terms of population ecologies. The issue which I want to explore in this paper is how this ability can be acquired, how the connection work of hearing a sound as a species-specific song is organized as a social activity of humans. In short, I want to investigate one aspect of the membership requirements of 'birders'. Whether amateurs or professionals, they have to learn to distinguish the species-specific songs, one from the other. So the issue is to try to explicate some of the ways in which this can be done (2).

This text was originally written for a presentation at the 2003 IIEMCA Conference on Producing Local Order, which included the showing of some charts and the playing of a number of audio recordings of bird songs. In the present version, the charts are not included for copyright reasons and the playings are just mentioned and briefly commented on. The core experience of the presentation is therefore no longer available as such, but with some effort it can be simulated by using some internet facilities, especially those available at: which has an enormous collection of animal sounds. It has indexes for scientific bird names, as well as those in English:, French, German and Spanish. Further more, this version includes some parts that I had to skip at the presentation, for of lack of time.

On birdlife in spring

The life of most birds is organized in a yearly cycle. In this cycle, spring is the time to breed, as it is the time when the relevant food for the young is most abundantly available (3). Male members of the various species select a place to claim as their breeding territory and start singing to attract a female and warn other males to stay out of it. The song they sing is largely species-specific, with some local variations and individual differences in ability. Males, then, are in competition for territories and for females. Good singers are more attractive to females than bad ones. Singing ability is used to identify the singer's overall quality as a breeding partner, mate, food getter, and territory defender. In this way, one can understand how typical singing repertoires emerged evolutionary as one type of a range of species properties: the birds who could best produce or understand the relevant mating signs of their species were to be the most successful reproducers of the species. What I am presenting here, then, is an exploration of what could be called an interface between two forms of social organization, a genetically-based organization of mating among birds and a culture-based one among birders.

Some uses of bird song recognition

The ability to distinguish bird songs can be used in a range of projects, personal and/or collective. Its demonstration can function as a kind of membership-proof. It can serve in the construction of a personal or area-specific 'list'. It is part of guided ecological tours, especially in spring. And it is required for various monitoring projects, in the service of nature conservation or enhancement, or for a national survey of breeding birds, as I will discuss below.

SOVON research

The major setting for field ornithology in the Netherlands is the SOVON Vogelonderzoek Nederland (Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology,, which coordinates a range of inventories and monitoring projects. These projects depend on the work of thousands of amateur birders, who have to recognize a bird when they see or hear one as a member of a particular species.

One of the products of SOVON research is the 'Atlas of the Dutch breeding birds: 1998-2000' (SOVON, 2002) (4). It presents a quantitative survey of the presence of all breeding birds of the Netherlands over the period 1998-2000. It is a sequel to a first breeding bird atlas, published in 1979, which reported on the period 1973-'77 and is therefore able to note the quite drastic changes in the Dutch bird population over a period of more than 20 years. For the more than 200 breeding birds, a two-page description is given, including some maps and charts such as a 'breeding evidence map', a 'change map', a 'relative abundance map', a chart depicting trends, and/or maps showing estimates (5).

Interesting as they may be from other perspectives, I will not consider such results in any detail. My interests as an ethnomethodologist are in the methods used to produce the primary material for these maps and charts. And from the range of these methods, I have chosen one: recognizing members of a bird species by their songs. This shift of interest, from results to methods, is analogous to the one visible in ethnomethodological and conversation-analytic research into standardized (survey) interviewing, in contrast to the interests of survey researchers themselves (cf. Houtkoop-Steenstra, 2000, Maynard et al, 2002).

And just as survey interviewing depends on a range of rather mundane abilities, so plotting birds depends on a range of more general capacities, one of which is the ability to recognize birds by their song (6).

Recognition work

Recognizing a bird song involves the ability to hear a particular sound pattern as a specimen of the species-specific song of a known kind of birds. So recognition work involves the ability to connect a sound and a name, in order to use the hearing of the song as a document of a bird's presence. What I want to explore - and tried to demonstrate at the presentation - is how this can be done.

As part of one's general membership one knows that life forms are differentiated in multi-layered systems of classification. Plants are considered to be basically different from animal forms, mammals are different from birds and insects, etc. Depending on the circumstances of one's upbringing and personal interests, one may learn to make some finer distinctions.

Around age 10, for instance, I could distinguish a number of common bird species, say Merel (Blackbird; Turdus merula), Ekster (Magpie; Pica pica), Koolmees (Great Tit; Parus major), Roodborst (Robin; Erithacus rubecula), Huismus (House Sparrow; Passer domesticus), Vink (Chaffinch; Fringilla coelebs), and even some less common ones like Goudvink (Bullfinch; Pyrrhula pyrrhula), which happened to visit our garden at times. I acquired most of this knowledge by looking at the birds and having their names mentioned to me by others. I learned to distinguish the species by sight, acquiring the ability to connect properties of form, colour and behaviour to names. Gradually, I also learned to recognize some birds by their songs. The Blackbird was probably among the earliest to be known in this way, as he sang from our rooftop in spring.

Seeing a bird you know by sight sing his song is one method of building a repertoire of recognizable bird songs. Over the years I was able to enlarge my repertoire by a variety of means, including having a song I heard 'named' for me by a co-listener, consulting descriptions in field guides and comparing what I had heard outdoors to a specimen song recorded on tape or CD.

According to my experience, the main difficulty in this learning process is to remember the details of what you hear, in order to be able to connect those with a name, on the spot or later. For colours we have names, forms can be described and behaviours characterized, but sounds are more difficult to 'catch' (7). There are, of course, easy cases, as the Koekoek (Cuckoo) who was given his name after his call, a so-called onomatopoeia.

There are a number of onomatopoetic bird names in Dutch, as for instance: grutto (Black-tailed Godwit; Limosa limosa), tureluur (Redshank; Tringa totanus), kieviet (Lapwing; Vanellus vanellus), kauw (Jackdaw; Corvus monedula), and karekiet (Reed Warbler; Acrocephalus scirpaceus). Bird names can be based on a variety of properties, including sound, sight and typical environment. My general impression is that Dutch names are more often based on sound than English ones. Apart from the Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), there are only very few onomatopoetic bird names in English, such as the Chiffchaff (in Dutch tjiftjaf; Phylloscopus collybita) and Oriole (wielewaal; Oriolus oriolus), and a few that refer to singing without being onomatopoetic, such as Song Thrush (zanglijster; Turdus philomelos) and Grasshopper Warbler (sprinkhaanrietzanger; Lucustella naevia)

Often the recognizability of the onomatopoeia in the field is not an easy matter. It may take repeated 'connection work' before the sound of, say, the Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa) is effectively recognized as Grutto. What you do is sing (in your mind) what you hear in the field or on the record, using the Dutch pronunciation of gruttogruttogrutto. In field guides more complicated renderings are given, for instance rieta-rieta-rieta, and gr-wieto (Peterson, 1984).

Such renderings could be called transcriptions and they are often given in combination with ordinary descriptions (8). Here's an example for the song of the Kleine Karekiet (Reed Warbler; Acrocephalus scirpaceus):

'babbelend' in laag tempo, bestaand uit nerveuze, 2-4 keer herhaalde noten (onomatopoëtisch), af en toe onderbroken door imitaties of fluittonen, trett trett trett TIRri TIRri truu truu TIe tre tre wi-wuu-wu tre tre truu truu TIRri TIRri .... Tempo af en toe hoger, maar nooit met crescendo van Rietzanger.
['babbling' at a slow tempo, consisting of nervous, 2-4 time repeated notes (onomatopoetic), now and then interrupted by imitations or whistlings, trett trett trett TIRri TIRri truu truu TIe tre tre wi-wuu-wu tre tre truu truu TIRri TIRri .... Tempo now and then higher, but never in crescendo like Sedge Warbler.]
Mullarney (2000): 296

At the presentation, I presented three recordings of birds, one of which was the kleine karekiet or Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus). I asked the audience to listen closely and try to find out which one is indeed the Reed Warbler, number #1, #2 or #3. You can do this experiment for yourself using the internet by listening to the samples found at the following links:


When I took a vote afterwards. #1 got the least number of votes, #2 a bit more, while the majority voted for #3 (9). So this experiment showed at least some of the difficulties an uninitiated audience to pick a heard example on the basis of a textual description.

Apart from such published transcriptions and descriptions, birders use a variety of informal tricks to assist their connection work. For instance, two small birds that inhabit the same types of environments and that sing not only in spring but also during the autumn and winter months, when most others are elsewhere or silent, are the roodborst (Robin) and the winterkoning (Wren). The song of the Robin can be described as 'pearling', and a memory-aid for the Wren is to pronounce the Dutch name in the following way: winterrrrrrrrrrrrrkoning, with the repeated rrr's representing the rattle-like part which Wrens produce in the middle of their song. So when I hear a 'small' bird in wintertime, I try to fit these two tricks on the sound and make my decision whether it's a Robin or a Wren that I'm hearing.

Birders exchange such tricks among themselves. The Grasmus (Whitethroat; Sylvia communis; the Dutch name is literally 'Grass-sparrow'), for instance, is informally called Krasmus ('scratch-sparrow'), after his 'scratchy' song.

Once birders have acquired a more solid kind of knowledge of a particular bird's song, they don't need these tricks anymore (except when the teach newbies). Experienced birders do what might be called an instant Gestalt recognition: they will need only a small fragment of a song to immediately recognize the bird that produced it, mostly on the basis of the tone-quality of what they hear, together with contextual knowledge of which birds sing where and when. Having that ability for a substantial number of birds is a mark of expert membership. Instead of just enjoying the singing of birds in spring, they hear an ecological soundscape, a natural order.

In terms of the concepts used by Garfinkel (2002), species names may function as instructions for an accountable seeing and/or hearing of a specimen as an authentic and accountable observation of a member of a particular species. In a name like Blackbird, the instruction is a visual one, while in Cuckoo or Karekiet it is aural: listen for this sound. In a trick like winterrrrrrrrrrrrrkoning, mentioned above, the name is 'extended' in order to produce an aural instruction: listen for an extended rrrrrrrrr. For other tricks, there may be no direct connection with the name, as in the characterization of the Robin as having a 'pearling' song. You have to remember that this is a property of a bird for which the name just offers a visual instruction, not an aural one. In short, names and trick may assist in local identification work, but that work still has to be done, on the spot and in real time, during or just after the actually heard song.


What I have tried to do at the presentation was to not just produce a descriptive sketch of the acquisition of a particular practical ability, but to use that as an instruction to the audience, to at least experience the practical recognizability of bird sons. As such it was a demonstration of one aspect of the lived work of being a birder.

That particular form of life involves a range of interests and competencies, of which recognizing bird songs is a prominent example. There is a range of ways in which such competencies can be learned. The major one is being exposed to examples of songs (in the field or on record) - these can be named by an expert and one can try to remember the sound as a named song. In most cases, one naming event is not enough; it needs to be repeated before one can recognize the song on one's own. It helps to use some linking devise, either by being instructed in it, of by inventing one oneself. Onomatopoetic names and some of the 'tricks' I discussed before may be helpful to support recognition work. I has proven to be quite hard to learn to recognize bird songs without being confronted at least once with a named sound example. Determining which bird is singing just by checking the live example against written descriptions is in most cases very hard indeed. What seems to be needed is a combination of two 'cognitive styles' (to misuse a Schutzian term), one based on Gestalt perception and another on itemized description. One has to hear the song while being offered the name of the species together with being instructed in the specificity of its particular properties by the description. So on hearing the song of the Robin, while being not only told that it is indeed a Robin singing, but also being offered the description of a 'pearling' way of singing, would as a combination seem to work best.

I would like to stress that recognizing bird songs is a socially organized human activity, which is, in a way, parasitic on a different form of life, that of birds. Birders are not the intended audience of the male bird singers. Birders are overhearing a conversation of sorts, just as conversation analysts are doing.

A final issue: what is it that I presented? I would suggest that it may be seen as an approximation of what Garfinkel (cf. 2002) has called a 'hybrid science', partly the practical science of field biology with special reference to birds and bird songs, which could be a part of, for example, a monitoring project, and partly an inquiry into the ethno-methods of birding (10). Whatever the status, the audience seemed to have enjoyed the sounds.


1. Cf. Garfinkel's discussion of 'the documentary method of interpretation': Garfinkel, 1967: 76-103.

2. Michael Lynch and John Law have explored some of the ways in which birds are depicted literarily and visually in field guides: Law, Lynch (1988), Lynch, Law (1999).

3. Songbirds tend to feed their young insects, so the yearly cycle of these birds is tied to those of the insects, which, in turn, is tied to the cycle of plants, which depends on the seasonal cycle of the earth in relation to the sun: light, humidity, temperature.

4. This Atlas project is similar to, and methodologically inspired by, one by the British Trust for Ornithology.

5. During the presentation, I showed maps depicting the distribution and the relative density, as well as a graph of the trend of the population in three different habitats of the Reed Wabler.

6. In the published report, this ability is not discussed at any length. It is just mentioned as a self-evident requirement, although it is granted that in a volunteer project like this one the quality of the work is bound to vary with experience.

7. It seems that people with some formal musical training are often better at it than others.

8. On the contrast between 'description' and 'transcription', see Jefferson (1985).

9. In fact, it was track: #2; #1 was the rietzanger the Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus), #3 the grote karekiet, the Great Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus).

10. Cf. Bjelic & Lynch (1992) for a much more elaborate example of such a 'hybrid' demonstration, in a different field.


Bjelic, Dusan, Michael Lynch (1992) 'The work of a (scientific) demonstration: respecifying Newton's and Goethe's theories of prismatic color'. In: Graham Watson, R.M. Seiler, eds. Text in Context: Contributions to ethnomethodology. London: Sage: 52-78

Garfinkel, Harold (1967) Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall

Garfinkel, Harold (2002) Ethnomethodology's Program: Working Out Durkheim's Aphorism. Edited and Introduced by Anne Rawls. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield

Houtkoop-Steenstra, Hanneke (2000) Interaction and the standardized interview. The living questionnaire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jefferson, Gail (1985) 'An exercise in the transcription and analysis of laughter'. In: Teun A. van Dijk, ed. Handbook of discourse analysis. London: Academic Press. Vol. 3: 25-34

Law, John, Michael Lynch (1988) 'Lists, field guides, and the descriptive organization of seeing: Birdwatching as an exemplary observational activity', Human Studies 11:271-304

Lynch, Michael, John Law (1999) 'Pictures, texts, and objects: The literary language game of birdwatching.' In M. Biagioli (ed.), Routledge Science Studies Reader. London: Routledge: 317-41

Maynard, Douglas W., Hanneke Houtkoop-Steenstra, Nora Cate Schaeffer, Johannes van der Zouwen, eds. (2002) Standardization and Tacit Knowledge. Interaction and Practice in the Survey Interview. New York: John Wiley

Mullarney, Killian, Lars Svensson, Dan Zetterström, Peter J. Grant (2000) ANWB Vogelgids van Europa. Den Haag: ANWB [Dutch edition of Swedisch original]

SOVON Vogelonderzoek Nederland (2002) Atlas van de Nederlandse broedvogels 1998-2000. [Atlas of the Dutch breeding birds: 1998-2000] - Nederlandse Fauna 5. Nationaal Natuurhistorisch Museum Naturalis, KNNV Uitgeverij & European Invertebrate Survey-Nederland, Leiden

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