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Listening in the Field (cover)

Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge (MA) & London

Publication Year: 2018

Binding: Hardback

Page Count: 248

ISBN Number: 9780262037624

Price: £ 27.00

Listening in the Field: Recording and the Science of Birdsong

Bird song and calls have caught people’s attention and captured our imagination for millennia. As scientific study emerged and advanced, listening to, recording and analysing bird vocalisations became a key aspect of ornithology.

Bruyninckx documents the history of these developments in absorbing detail, starting with case studies of some of the early pioneers of bird sound recording in the field and going on to consider how we interact with and interpret bird sounds. The author shows how the practice of recording these sounds started off at the intersection of popular entertainment and field ornithology. He charts the role of technologies that emerged during the twentieth century in this field, particularly the electric microphone, the portable magnetic tape recorder and the sound spectrograph. The way each new development meshed with existing technologies and approaches is given insightful treatment, exploring how they combined, complimented and sometimes conflicted.

The book raises several interesting points, such as the tendency for scientific observation to be viewed as a visual matter, the inherent difficulty of objectively interpreting sound and the importance of collaboration between different groups of scientists, and between researchers and citizen scientists. The work of the Cornell Library of Natural Sounds in collecting, collating, storing and analysing bird sounds, as well as mobilising and motivating a community of amateur sound recordists, is explored, as are the roles of the BBC and the Cambridge University Zoology Department. The efforts of a number of key individuals are discussed; from a BTO perspective, it was particularly interesting to read about E. Max Nicholson’s involvement in this area.

Bird sound recording is attracting growing attention from ‘amateur ornithologists’ – or at least, birders – in the UK, and technological advances are making it easier than ever for anyone to record the sounds they hear. In the current era of online databases of digital sound files and smartphone apps that not only record sounds but also produce live spectrographs, Listening in the Field provides a timely and meticulously-researched background to this fascinating topic.

Book reviewed by Nick Moran

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