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Nature’s voices are part of a highly organized orchestra

They come every evening just after dark, announcing themselves with the same cry, and leave in the morning before the sun rises, I think to spend the day on the cliffs of Oyster Bay Peninsula. The Whitebrowed Robin Chats (Kurumbiza heuglini) who permanently otherwise dominate the dawn chorus with their multiple fluting musical trills, calling to each other back and forth.

Cordon Bleus (Njiri buluu shavujekundu), mannikins (chigi) , weaverbirds (Kwera), Mousebirds (Pasa mchirizi), and sunbirds (chozi) and insects are also singing and chirping. As I listen to the dawn chorus, and watch the night sky softening into orange, light shimmering… I think of a book I recently read: The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause. This book has taught me how to better hear Nature’s voice.

I met the author once. He was in Tanzania recording sounds. He recorded the “soundscape” at Gombe Stream National Park. In other words, he recorded the individual and group voices of the chimpanzees (sokwe mtu), as well as the sounds in the environment: the birds and insects, the frogs croaking, other animals, the wind moving through the trees, water flowing in the streams, the lapping of Lake Tanganyika.

He also went to the Rufiji River to record hippos (boko). Until I talked to him I had thought hippos were mostly silent. As I reported in Nature Notebook in 1990, he found that the hippos were talking to each other under water. This is what he wrote in the book: “Our camp, a typical African tourist and big game hunting facility, was located on the waterway, where we could see, from the high banks, large gatherings of hippos both on the shore and wallowing in the water below us.

In an aluminum rowboat provided by the lodge, we drifted downriver with the current so that the river’s flow rate would equalize with the velocity of the boat and wouldn’t interfere with the hydrophone we had dropped over the side. As we passed submerged families of hippos, recorder rolling, it became immediately apparent that they vocalized under water, their satiric, buffoonlike punctuated grunts revealing a fairly extensive and intricate vocabulary. …

Hippos are social animals. In murky crocodile-invested environments, this type of contact for animals with a highly developed social structure is germane to the safety of the individual members and the bloat. When the family is submerged, members constantly vocalize to retain social contact with the others….”

He recorded the beach in front of Mwalimu Nyerere’s house. This is what he wrote about the sounds of that beach, “In Dar es Salaam, when the weather is calm, small Indian Ocean waves come ashore from the east in quick, staccato-like patterns – sounding almost like the frequent successive lapping at a freshwater lake.

The rake of the beach is at a steep angle, causing the waves to collapse just as they reach the shore. Of all my oceanbeach recordings, no others from a saltwater environment sound quite like this one.” For four decades he has been recording and archiving individual voices of creatures and soundscapes all around the world. He has recorded more than fifteen thousand species and four thousand hours of wild soundscapes.

One night in Kenya he had a mystical experience. He wrote, “…several hours after midnight at Governor’s Camp in the Masai Mara, I set up my gear and began to collect extremely rich natural sounds from a nearby old growth forest – one typical of what early humans might have encountered….The magnificence of creature voices was enhanced, no doubt, by my total exhaustion.

I felt like I was hallucinating.…No longer a cacophony, it (the aural environment) became a partitioned collection of vocal organisms – a highly orchestrated acoustic arrangement of insects (Insecta), spotted hyenas (fisi madoa), eagle-owls (bundi machonjano), African wood owls (bundi msitu), elephants (tembo), tree hyrax (pimbi), distant lions (simba), and several knots of tree frogs (vyura miti) and toads (vyura matovu).

Every distinct voice seemed to fit within its own acoustic bandwidth…” He heard that each species communicated within a specific bandwith. With hundreds of species calling at the same time, the effect was not chaos or cacophony, but that of a highly developed orchestra.


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