Recently I’ve been doing a lot of walking out in the woods or on the beach and I’ve discovered that no matter where I go, the sounds of cars, sirens, planes and boat motors are ever present. Even in this time of reduced traffic, a certain level of noise has continued unabated. There may be stretches of time where the natural sounds of nature alone can be heard but they are rare and short, if you really stop to listen and notice the background sounds.
On the beach I often hear the little “peep” calls of the piping plovers as they work their way down the shore, feeding as they go. I hear the terns screaming overhead and the funny calls of the willets establishing territorial dominance. All these birds communicate with each other by calls and songs, and when a plane goes overhead or a ferry motors by, their little voices aren’t silenced — they’re still calling — but they can’t be heard very well or easily by their companions. This can be disorienting and even dangerous when warning calls can’t be heard.
In the woods the towhees, catbirds, orioles and ovenbirds are calling. None of these birds are quiet, yet road noise can easily overwhelm them. It’s difficult to find a mate when the only thing answering your call is a tractor trailer truck braking.
Over the years I’ve mentioned this to other folks that are out and about quite a bit, and some deny that they hear traffic noise. Until they stop to listen for it. Then they say things like they must be used to it, or it never bothered them before. The hum of traffic from the highway alone can be heard in almost every area I’ve been in, except a very few outposts that are far enough away from the highway. Those areas are more likely to get noise from either 6A or 28, which may be less consistent, but they also get more boat and plane noise, especially in spring and summer. No place on the Cape is totally free from ambient noise during the day.
We humans are used to a lot of racket. Our appliances and cars make noise, even riding our bikes makes noise. Many people listen to music, podcasts, books or talk shows through earphones when they are outdoors. Others listen to them in their cars or at home. TVs chatter in many homes even when no one is in the room. We are so used to random loud sounds that silence can seem foreign, even a little unsettling.
The natural world is rarely silent, however. It’s just quieter, subtler. Even in the coldest stretches of winter there is the cracking of ice, the creaking of trees, the cawing of crows and the calls of the gulls. In the spring the woods and our backyards are filled with the songs of birds, peepers, frogs and toads. By summer, the insects have chimed in, and by fall the rustling of leaves fills in the empty spaces that retreating voices have left behind.
A few days ago, I was sitting in the lovely warm sun in my backyard, reading a book. It was very peaceful being serenaded by orioles and catbirds while the scent of lilacs wafted by on a breeze. An insistent baby mockingbird was calling over and over and over. I was able to see it from my seat and as I watched, a parent bird came to feed it and took off quickly. The youngster was soon joined by another and the two of them proceeded to make quite a ruckus. These well-feathered fledglings could fly a bit and were close to full size. They still had some yellow on their bills, the color of gaping mouths that all parent birds recognize instinctively, however, so they weren’t quite ready to be on their own. They were pretty cute to watch but as time wore on I became aware of all the other sounds interrupting their calls.
Young birds move around and communicate with their parents by making certain kinds of calls. If you listen, you may hear the parent respond and sometimes the response makes the young ones go silent. They will crouch a bit, doing their best to stay still and hidden, understanding danger may be imminent.
When the world is full of sirens and car honks, planes taking off, boat whistles, lawn mowers and leaf blowers it must be difficult to hear your mom beg you to stay still. No quiet mutter of a mother bird can compete with a motor.
At the beach, the little plovers and terns listen for the warnings of their parents as well. Can they hear over the booming boats powering by? The airplanes screaming overhead?
Scientists and ecologists are studying the effects of excessive noise on nature, both on land and underwater. We humans make a heck of a lot of noise and we don’t seem to care that we are interfering with the rest of the world. Can’t hear? Turn it up!
It’s a loud, loud world out there. Maybe take out the earphones, turn off the TV and shut off the leaf blower and take a listen. Nature is making plenty of music and has lots to say right now. You might be surprised by what you hear, both from nature and from the other humans around you. Maybe we can’t change everything, but we can change some things, right in our own backyards. Maybe think about that the next time you reach for the leaf blower.