A Diminuendo of Birdsong

Wood Thrush (Photo Source) – Song

The increasing numbers of species that have become extinct or threatened with extinction was the main message delivered by the recent report from the  Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Here are some of its findings specifically about birds:

–3.5% domesticated breed of birds extinct by 2016
–23% of threatened birds whose distributions may have been negatively impacted by climate change already


An earlier report gave additional data:

A 2009 report on the state of birds in the United States found that 251 (31 percent) of the 800 species in the country are of conservation concern [8]. Globally, BirdLife International estimates that 12 percent of known 9,865 bird species are now considered threatened, with 192 species, or 2 percent, facing an “extremely high risk” of extinction in the wild — two more species than in 2008. Habitat loss and degradation have caused most of the bird declines, but the impacts of invasive species and capture by collectors play a big role, too.


The wood thrush (pictured above), a bird species with a declining population, has been celebrated for the beauty of its song, as for example in this observation by Henry David Thoreau:

As I come over the hill, I hear the wood-thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy, and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me.

Henry David Thoreau, Journal 22, June 1853

Can we imagine a world with fewer and fewer birds singing and calling to each other (and to us)? There have been many efforts to alert the public about the mounting threats to a number of avian species. Some, like the following short video, do a beautiful job making the case for supporting action to forestall their decline.

I recently experienced a work of sound art at Mass. Audubon’s Boston Nature Center lamenting the loss of certain birdsongs. Created by musician and former software engineer Steve Norton, it consisted of audio recordings of ten birds and two frogs which became extinct during the past 100 years. The recordings were made available to Norton by The Macaulay Library of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and The Amphibian Foundation in Atlanta.

In 2016, Norton left his day job to pursue an MFA at the University of Maine. Having developed an interest in recording the sounds of his surroundings near his home in Medford, MA, with the equipment he had used to record his saxophone performances, he became more and more interested in recording the sounds of nature. He eventually created Requiem, the sound installation of twelve extinct species I heard at the Boston Nature Center. It’s currently available in SoundCloud. Because the twelve recordings, which have been programmed to play in a continuous loop, are of unequal length, the combinations of songs and calls will always be different. According to Norton:

It’s entirely unpredictable. . . . Sometimes it gets very dense and then also falls silent. . . .There have been occasions where people have said, ‘Is it over?’ It’s theoretically never over. It could run until the power goes out.

Norton’s purpose behind the piece is clear, stating that he hopes visitors will remember that “all of these species went extinct because of things that we [humans] did.” Source

But there was a bit of good news from the IPBES report:

–29%: average reduction in the extinction risk for mammals and birds in 109 countries thanks to conservation investments from 1996 to 2008; the extinction risk of birds, mammals and amphibians would have been at least 20% greater without conservation action in recent decade

I’m grateful that conservation efforts are making some difference. Birds provide a wonderful stream of calls and songs throughout my day. They show us that hey, it’s OK – sing your heart out if you want to, like Rumi: “I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.” And they can inspire us to hope despite a bleak outlook, as one bird did for Thomas Hardy.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

October 30, 2019 Update
A recent report published in Science states that 29% of North America’s bird population has been lost in the past 48 years, a drop of nearly three million birds.

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