Soundscape Ecology: A Real Conservation Tool or Exercise in Nostalgia?

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 19, 2013 9

Increased noise may keep birds from finding mates and locating prey, and it interferes with other complex communications networks important for the birds’ survival. ©Eric Rock

When trying to measure the impact we humans have made on the natural world, we often concentrate on the number of animal species that have been lost or the plants that are disappearing. In today’s predominantly visual world, it’s not often that we think about the sounds that are now gone for good. That’s why a recent project from the University of Wisconsin (UW) is capturing attention.

In the 1940s, well-known ecologist, author, forester and UW professor Aldo Leopold was working on his hypothesis that birds sing in response to daylight; that each species begins to vocalize when the light reaches a particular brightness. Although he had no tape recorder, he was a meticulous note-taker and recorded the time and brightness (gauged with a light meter) of when each type of bird started its morning songs. Using his notes, UW researchers have been able to recreate the world of sound that Leopold heard more than 70 years ago.

“Soundscape ecology” is a relatively new field of study that is starting to be taken seriously by conservationists. But can hearing the world as it once was truly be a tool for helping to create stronger environmental protections, or is it just an exercise in nostalgia? 

The word “soundscape” refers to the total acoustic environment of an area. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

The sound of silence

Aldo Leopold’s journal notes were so detailed that the UW researchers were able to take digital recordings of birdsong from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to recreate the sounds that would have been heard at “Leopold’s Shack” on the Wisconsin River on the morning of June 1, 1940. Each of the species of birds sings in the order that Leopold recorded.

The area around the Leopold Shack is much different today than it was seven decades ago. Now, there are fewer farms in the area, and a busy interstate runs nearby. As a result, there is a lot more human-generated noise and the bird populations are different.

Although the fact seems shocking, in the Lower 48 today there is no place more than 22 miles from the nearest road. The most remote, landlocked spot is deemed to be in the Teton Wilderness off Yellowstone National Park’s southeast corner in a valley known as Thorofare. While it takes a round-trip hike of more than 70 miles to reach the point, it is only 22 miles as the crow flies from the nearest road. Tuning out the hum of human activity today—even in places designated as wilderness—is almost impossible. So to get background sound that was free of the roar of cars and trucks for the Aldo Leopold project, wind and water sounds were recorded at a rural property that one of the lead researchers owns.

Public Domain

The Teton Wilderness in Wyoming holds the most remote, landlocked spot.

Soundscape ecologists say that projects such as the Leopold study are important for understanding the role of sound and acoustics in a healthy ecosystem. They believe that sound is critical to effective management and protection of natural environments. It has been demonstrated that increased noise may disrupt wildlife behavior, particularly in mating, locating prey and other complex communications networks important for survival. In addition, 72 percent of visitors to national parks say that one of the most important reasons they come is to experience natural peace and the sounds of nature.

The National Park Service is a big proponent of soundscape ecology. Under the National Park Service Organic Act of 1916, a premier part of the agency’s mission is to preserve or restore the natural resources of the parks. It logically follows, then, that along with protecting and conserving the wildlife, water, air quality and geologic features that sound should also be included. In the Grand Canyon National Park Enlargement Act of 1975, for example, it’s stated that natural quiet is “a value or resource in its own right, to be protected from significant adverse impact.” The National Parks Overflight Act of 1987 requires the park service to report on the nature and scope of overflight problems in parks, as well as on the injurious effects of air tours—including noise—on natural, historic and cultural resources, impairment of visitor enjoyment and impacts of noise on safety of park users.”

The song of wilderness

Some say, however, that when compared to the imminent extinction of animals and plants, soundscape ecology is a “small issue.” Since preserving the natural sounds of a place may be just as challenging as conserving the mosaic of plants and animals that keep an ecosystem intact, precious conservation dollars should be spent first on conserving that mosaic. Maintaining the natural soundscape is secondary to making sure the biota is still there.

Sigurd Olson believed that “hearing the singing wilderness” is akin to catching its real meaning. ©Eric Rock

Others point out that soundscape ecology is just another reiteration of acoustic ecology, a discipline that has been around since the 1960s. The new term is just a way to bring buzz to an older field of study. And since we’ve had acoustic ecology studies for 50 years now, it’s unlikely renaming such research under a new umbrella will have any meaningful impact on conservation policies and measures.

Sigurd Olson, author, environmentalist and advocate for wilderness, once wrote, Far more important than the places I have seen or what I have done or thought about is the possibility of hearing the singing wilderness and catching, perhaps, its real meaning.”

Do you think that soundscape ecology research will impress policymakers, especially given our visually oriented culture? Is restoring natural soundscapes even possible in our modern world?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Morgan Richardson July 16, 2013 at 11:55 am - Reply

    I’ve recently stumbled across the concept of soundscape ecology. One of my coworkers emailed a link to a talk presented by Bernie Krause. I found it to be completely fascinating.

    I truly believe that it could be a valuable tool for conservation campaigns. Landscapes make their own music, and music is something to which everyone can relate. Listening to a change in a soundscape with the introduction of anthrophony could potentially make a huge impact with people. I don’t believe you need to be trained to hear the difference either. Anyone can listen to the different recordings and see a difference.

  2. Steve Gluck March 25, 2013 at 8:52 am - Reply

    Thanks, Candice.

  3. Candice Gaukel Andrews March 24, 2013 at 11:43 am - Reply
  4. Steve Gluck March 24, 2013 at 11:21 am - Reply

    Odd that there is no mention of Rachel Carson and the fact that it was the silence of those spring mornings which captured her attention and became the title of her book.

  5. Ariane Janer March 24, 2013 at 11:20 am - Reply

    Anybody interested in natural soundscapes should read The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause.

  6. Dave Ealey March 20, 2013 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    What a marvellous story of the importance of soundscapes and the legendary abilities of one of the fathers of North American wildlife ecology, Aldo Leopold!

    I see little merit in pursuing a research/regulatory approach that would attempt to re-establish a particular soundscape, per se; however, awareness of the importance of reducing human impact on the natural choruses among wildlife should be widely communicated. Like many birders, roughly 90 percent of my birding is by ear; and our appreciation of uncluttered but naturally noisy tableaus of birdsong is central to understanding the ecological interrelationships within a particular landscape.

    It’s perhaps ironic that one of the largest citizen science monitoring programs in North America–the Breeding Bird Survey–is inextricably linked to the continental road network.

  7. Kathryn Papp March 20, 2013 at 11:33 am - Reply

    Natural capital relies on frameworks that are largely outdated, and more alarming have recently proven how vulnerable they are to wholesale collapse.
    Why would we want to knowingly entrust the planet’s defining feature – life – to a deeply flawed system of economically driven management?

    The concept of natural capital has not moved far enough from its beginnings (the examples of good/bad remain the same) so that the wealth of knowledge from the extraordinary burst of science (IPCC etc) and the Internet (globally distributed) and newer concepts such as resilience and scale have been incorporated.

    In the development of ideas it seems more at the end of a cycle than a first glimpses of a new one. Elinor Ostrom and Cheryl Sandburg both focus on the “Commons” of human behavior. Another concept that needs to inform Natural Capital before it moves on, if it can.

  8. Dennis H. Bartow, Ed.D. March 20, 2013 at 6:14 am - Reply

    An interesting subject. As a former NPS Naturalist at Yellowstone, I cherished my time in the back country where I could observe, and reflect on my surroundings and prepare my interpretive programs. Leading small groups off the organized trails and boardwalks, we experienced somewhat of what you describe. In the winter, however, with the advent of the snowmobiles, the soundscape is shattered for both the wildlife gleaning meager subsistance in the harsh winterscape and the visitor intent on seeing “nature” in its pristeen state. I am wondering what studies have been have been conducted in areas such as Yellowstone on wildlife population response to the introduction of such technology both on the noise front as well as the physical threat snowmobiles pose?

  9. David Haskell March 19, 2013 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    Great post. The idea of soundscapes comprises the physical and the biological components of the acoustic world, and their interaction. This is a significant shift of emphasis from the species-centered view of much of acoustic biology. Note, though, that the term “soundscape” is perhaps older than “acoustic ecology” as summarized here:

    Listening to our world. What a fine idea. An aural path to belonging.

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