In spring 2020, the apocalyptic term "silent spring", as Rachel Carson conjures up in her environmental bestseller of the same name from 1962, suddenly experienced an unexpected new meaning: the shutdown of human activity in the first corona lockdown suddenly left the bird world even more Space to put yourself in the limelight acoustically. Because of "Silent Spring"! What there was to hear as soon as the cars and planes fell silent amazed many people. One of them: Michael John Gorman, founding director of the new Museum for Biosciences and Environment, Biotopia in Munich. “That was really impressive,” enthuses the native Dubliner on the phone.
The morning singing, when the birds are particularly active, is a strong indicator of the health of an ecosystem.
"I thought to myself: If you always recorded the morning concerts in May, at the same time from the same places, you could see how the acoustic landscape changed over the years." He then worked with the Art and Culture Foundation and the Biotopia sponsorship group spoken, and together it went very quickly: Within three weeks he and his team developed the citizen science platform “Dawn Chorus”.
More than 5000 bird concerts from fifty countries have now been uploaded to this global sound map.
Chiffchaff and wren in competition
The short development time at that time meant that some things could still be improved, such as user-friendliness. An app was needed, and it has been around since May 2021 thanks to funding from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media as part of the “Neustart Kultur” program. The “Dawn Chorus” app is free and makes the recording and uploading process easier. In addition, the quality of the uploads has been standardized, which is intended to improve their scientific evaluation. And because the Natural History Museum Biotopia sees itself as an interface between science, art and society - scientifically supported and advised by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen and the bio-acoustic pioneer Bernie Krause,who, for example, tells of the origins of music in nature in his book "The Great Orchestra of Animals" - the multimedia artists Mika Johnson and Marcel Karnapke have developed an additional treat for the app. Its art feature called “Sonic Feather” allows you to turn a recording of a bird's song into a colorful, swirling graphic by touching the screen. A nice gimmick.
The app should of course not only be an occupational therapy for bored city dwellers, but above all serve science. Gorman explains that the goal is a database that will allow future algorithms to identify individual species in a complex concert of birds. There are already very good apps, such as "Zwitschomat", that can assign individual bird sounds. But in filtering out multi-throated choirs they would reach their limits. "So far, human intelligence is still better than artificial intelligence," says Gorman. But sometimes the information provided by the user remains a little fuzzy if they do not specify "tit" and "crow" in more detail. Scientifically reliable findings on the distribution of bird species based on the acoustic data are still a long way off, but one,which should also be used to continue composing with the help of the app. What Gorman's team has already evaluated, however, are the bird species from the “quiet” spring 2020 that are most cited by the citizens. The front runner was the blackbird, followed by the great tit, blackcap, cuckoo and robin. It is interesting to compare it with another citizen science project, the "Hour of the Garden Birds", organized in Germany by the Naturschutzbund Deutschland (Nabu) and the State Association for Bird Protection in Bavaria. The blackbird and great tit lead both rankings, but there are also amazing differences: Cuckoo, blackcap, chiffchaff and wren all made it into the top ten of “Dawn Chorus” 2020, while they made it into the “Hour of the Garden Birds” that same year only came in 44th, 23rd, 28th and 24th.Various factors are responsible for these differences, explains co-project manager Lisa Gill, among other things it is due to the different recording or observation times and the fact that some birds can be heard rather than seen.