The silence of the birds: When nature gets quiet, be afraid

September 18, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Brutal wildfire images too much to bear? Fatigued by non-stop news of extreme weather, record-low snowpack, emaciated polar bears, unprecedented this and fast-receding that, a natural world that appears to be going more or less insane?

Maybe you need some quiet. Get outside, sit yourself down and let nature’s innate healing powers soothe your aching heart.

Sounds good, right? Sounds refreshing. Sounds… well, not quite right at all. Not anymore.

Have you heard? Or more accurately, not heard? Vicious fires and vanishing ice floes aside, there’s yet another ominous sign that all is not well with the natural world: it’s getting quiet out there. Too quiet.

Behold, this bit over in Outside magazine, profiling the sweet, touching life and times of 77-year-old bioacoustician and soundscape artist Bernie Kraus, author of “The Great Animal Orchestra” (2012), TED talker, ballet scorer, and a “pioneer in the field of soundscape ecology.”

Krause is a man whose passion and profession has been making field recordings of the world’s “biophony” for going on 45 years, setting up his equipment in roughly the same places around the world to record nature’s (normally) stunningly diverse aural symphony – all the birds, bees, beavers, babbling streams, fluttering wings, the brush of trees and the rush of rivers – truly, the very pulse and thrum of life itself.

One of his most favorite spots to record? Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, in the Mayacamas Mountains, in Sonoma. It’s here he discovered something very disquieting indeed: The wonderfully diverse sounds of nature are not merely changing and evolving as usual. They are actually diminishing. Thinning out. And in many cases, vanishing completely.

This is the chilling news: Bit by bit, bird by bird, species by species, gurgling brook by gushing river, the song of wild nature is, in many places, falling deathly silent. The reasons? You already know: Real estate development, mining, logging, habitat destruction, climate change, drought.

Between 2004 and 2015, the [Mayacamas] site’s biophony (totality of sounds produced by living organisms) dropped in level by a factor of five. “It’s a true narrative, a story telling us that something is desperately wrong,” Krause says.

In short: What once was a rich, varied symphony of sound has become a far more subdued chamber orchestra, with large spaces of eerie silence where there was once a vast natural racket, signifying everything.

It’s not just Sonoma. The weird hush is surely spreading, becoming more and more familiar. It’s not hard to figure out why: We’ve successfully wiped out fully half the world’s wildlife, in the just last four decades alone. Songbird populations in particular, for a variety of (mostly terrible, mostly human-caused) reasons, have been decimated all over the world. The skies just aren’t as musical as they used to be. Ecosystems are sputtering, shifting violently, dying away completely, as pathways to life are being choked off.

Knit a nest if you like - you'll need about a billion more

Knit a nest if you like – you’ll need about a billion more

I recently wrote about the week I spent at my family’s getaway cabin in northern Idaho (“Everything is on fire and no one cares“), a normally pristine, sublime summertime experience, this year ominously altered by the sheer density and persistence of smoke from all the regional wildfires.

The light was different, the air charred and dry. But perhaps most disquieting of all, was the sound – or rather, the lack of it.

When the wind died down and the smoke really gathered in, the sky would turn a more sickly orangish yellow. The birds seemed to stop singing entirely. The bees fell silent. The normally vibrant background cacophony of the natural world flattened out. It wasn’t just eerie, it was psychically disturbing. You could feel the lack of healthy sound vibration in the air.

Of course it’s not that way everywhere. Wildlife still teems in many parts of the world where humankind’s reach hasn’t penetrated as fully; in some places, due to the self-same climate change, there is bizarre excess, abnormal surges in animal population, even as overall biodiversity continues to decline. There is perhaps too much sound in some areas, as nature’s recoil to our abuses takes different forms.

But overall, the tonal shift is undeniable: There is now less birdsong than at any time in human history. Fewer lions’ roars, beehive hums, elephant rumbles, frog croakings, simply because we’ve killed off so many of them. One by one and species by category, the orchestra’s players are exiting the stage. The concert will never be over, but at this rate, it might be a very somber final movement indeed.

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Mark Morford

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