Acoustic Archaeology

In her new book, The Bird Way, Jennifer Ackerman describes Australian lyrebirds as audio archaeologists, birds capable of keeping lost songs and soundscapes alive across multiple generations even as local ecologies change.

She describes a group of lyrebirds captured in one part of Australia and later released in Tasmania. “The birds continued mimicking birdcalls from their old landscape for many years,” Ackerman writes. “Thirty years after they were released, their descendants were said to be imitating birds never present on the island, such as pilotbirds and whipbirds,” thus offering what Ackerman calls “compelling proof of cultural transmission, one generation passing on knowledge to the next.”

For Ana Dalziell, a lyrebird-expert Ackerman meets out in the field, this makes lyrebirds “archivists of soundscapes.”

[Image: Painting of a lyrebird by John Gould, courtesy archive.org.]

The idea that the acoustics of no-longer-existing landscapes are being passed down socially through generations of songbirds is incredible, as well as suggestive of a possible tool by which landscape historians could attempt the sonic reconstructing lost environments.

The sounds of old elevators or HVAC systems in a now-destroyed building—perhaps even a demolished work by a globally renowned architect, her building now known only through acoustic after-effects, its buzzes and whirs still passed tree to tree—still being imitated by local songbirds; or the sounds of wind passing through now-extinct trees, or trees lost to recent wildfires, still being reproduced by local songbirds; or the sounds of ground-dwelling predators who are not extinct, but have nevertheless moved on to other parts of Australia, still popping up as acoustic imitations: an audio archaeology based entirely in the communal surround-sound of social singers.

You want to hear the sounds of lost buildings or extinct landscapes, and merely need to head deep into the trees, listening to lyrebirds along the way.

(Thanks to Nicola Twilley for giving me The Bird Way!)

One thought on “Acoustic Archaeology”

  1. Jerry Spinelli’s book Stargirl explores this theme. The girl gives a speech, “I Might Have Heard a Moa” (although a mockingbird is the mimic passing on the prehistoric birdcall in this case, not the lyrebird).

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