More than music: Birdsong and it's meaning
Picture this: you’re walking through a quiet forest one warm summer evening – the air is sweet and fresh, a gentle breeze ruffles through your hair. You hear the sound of birds gently chirping somewhere off in the distance. It’s a sound you haven’t heard before, or at least one you haven’t heard in a while. You stop, close your eyes, listen . . .
Sounds magical doesn’t it? For Catherine Welke, laboratory coordinator for King’s Biology department, it’s exactly how she spends her time when she’s not helping students on campus.
As Welke says, “it’s a well-known fact in conservation biology that the health of avian communities is a reliable indicator of the health of an ecosystem. Birds are sensitive to the conditions of their surroundings, so understanding which species are present and which are not can identify environmental concerns that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.”
In order to open your eyes to where healing is needed, you first need to open your ears. Birds are fast. Their colouring often keeps them hidden in shrubs and branches – even from the trained eye of an experienced birder. But just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Welke’s birding ear is exceptionally sharp, and her understanding of bird languages, advanced. Her current Master’s research involves analyzing the movement of birds between different breeding sites and the different barriers to bird movement like mountains, unsuitable climate, differences in song dialect, etc. which all affect gene flow in a species.
One of the many species Welke studies is the white-crowned sparrow. White-crowned sparrows are ideal models for studying populations because they live in many different habitats, from alpine meadows to sea-level ecosystems. They have an amazing diversity of local song dialects which can be different in habitats as little as 100 km apart and respond to local changes in environment.
“For humans to be birders, we have to learn their language,” says Welke. “If we can know their language, we can better understand the message behind their songs, sense changes, make corrections, and initiate conservation procedures accordingly.”
You need all your senses to understand the truths of the forest.