Pseudo-Scientific Mystic Musings

A few days ago, I mentioned to my sister-in-law that I remembered, years ago, having thought it would be cool to have an app that could identify birds by listening to their songs, sort of like Shazam does with music. Our conversation surrounded my relatively new-found BirdNET app, which does precisely that. Not satisfied that I thought I remembered articulating the wish for such an app, I went looking for evidence of my prescience. And I found it. In a post on my old blog, Brittle Road, dated August 26, 2012, I wrote these words:

The birds’ chatter gets noticeably louder and more insistent as I get closer to the plants where they are hiding. I wish I could tell from their songs what they were.  That gives me an idea!  It would be great to have a smart phone app, like Shazam for my iPhone, that would identify bird songs.  When I hold my iPhone up in the direction of speakers playing a piece of music, Shazam usually is able to pinpoint the name of the song, the artist, and the album on which it is found.  I wonder if there’s any reason the same mechanisms used in Shazam could not be used to identify bird songs?

I do not know precisely when BirdNET was first made available in beta test mode, but I suspect it has been relatively recent. Regardless of when it launched, it was (and is) a magnificent example of the marriage between curiosity, intellect, and technology. I applaud the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Chemnitz University of Technology for an extraordinary demonstration of exciting technology. A quote from the website linked in the first sentence of this paragraph says, ” Our research is mainly focused on the detection and classification of avian sounds using machine learning – we want to assist experts and citizen scientist in their work of monitoring and protecting our birds.” Such stuff makes me wish I had the wherewithal to absorb enough knowledge of ornithology and technology to participate in the exciting work of the two institutions.

Bird sounds and songs. Most humans, and I include myself, have virtually no knowledge of what those noises mean. We spend our entire lives surrounded by those sounds, but we largely ignore them or appreciate them only to the extent that they are “pleasing to the ear.” But what do those chirps and whistles and calls MEAN? Humans may never truly understand what occurs in the brains of birds as they create their unique notes and spread their voices in the sky and among trees and brush and on wires along lonely stretches of highway. We may never know.

Another mystery we want to unlock. But do we really want to know everything? Aren’t the mysteries of Nature, especially, sacred secrets about which we want to remain in the dark? Do we not long to always have just beyond our reach mystic enigmas, magical puzzles that hold the secrets to life, secrets we are forever prohibited from knowing? I think we want to know, but we don’t. We want to have answers, but we want to be delightfully confused. We thirst for knowledge, but we truly worship its absence. Like birds, we are living conundrums.

Birds, we are told, are modern-day dinosaurs. According to Julia Clarke of the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater), “All of the species of birds we have today are descendants of one lineage of dinosaur: the theropod dinosaurs.” And there you go! That one bit of knowledge, which has been lodged in my brain for a long, long time, could prompt me to return to college to pursue a degree in a field of study that could expose me to every other field of study: a terminal advanced degree in renaissance multi-disciplinary natural science philosophy, or some other such non-existent educational fantasy. I do want to know the answers! Mystery be damned! I want to know the facts!  Ah, but do I really? I think not. I think I am just like the rest of the human race; largely attuned to science and facts, but steeped in superstition and mysticism with a touch of doubt, and anger at my inadequacy.

I could imagine spending my days in intense field work, watching living dinosaurs soar through the air. Except I would need the body of a thirty or four year-old, if I were to be moderately comfortable doing that. I don’t have such a body. Rats. Just as I imagined what would become BirdNET, I now imagine an injection that will restore youthful energy, strength, stamina, and intellectual capacity. Eight years from now, if such an injection is available, I will insist on taking at least a bit of credit for its creation.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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4 Responses to Pseudo-Scientific Mystic Musings

  1. Warren, I encourage you to get the app. It is a real delight! Of course, knowing which bird makes which sounds does nothing to improve the music; but it does make me feel like I have some connection with the conductor! I like your tale of the tree frogs; their orchestral sections are appealing and entertaining. Bari just needs time to appreciate thei songs she hears from them! Black snake, though, will have his sustenance; Nature is both beautiful and monstrous (in a beautiful way).

  2. Warren A Searls says:

    I will am going to get the App. I listen morning and night from the open window next to my bed. Some voices I recognize, for most I don’t have a clue.

    Outside our front door is a small rock garden and pond. It is loaded with frogs. At dusk their symphonic warmup begins. Each playing over the other, getting louder and louder. Loud enough to drown out the TV. Bari hates them. I go sit on the front porch to listen. They never stop warming up. There is no conductor to bring them to order. The little tree frogs provide the violin section. There is a bass, percussion and horn section. It is all there. All you have to do is listen.

    If they detect that I’m there, they all go instantaneously quiet. In a few moments they start again. Sooner or later this summer Black Snake will appear around the rocks looking to fill a belly. There is plenty to go around. Nature will have its way.

  3. Birdwatcher, the internet is indeed a strange and wonderful thing. But it is not as strange and wonderful as birds. It’s fascinating to watch and listen to birds. It’s equally fascinating to put oneself into the mind of a bird and to consider what the bird thinks and feels. I’m especially enamored of the feeling I get when, while in the mind of a bird, I fly effortlessly through the air come to an almost instantaneous stop, from full speed, on a tiny twig. That’s when I come out of the bird’s mind and crash with a monstrous thud, after breaking the tree branch under my immense weight.

  4. VA Birdwatcher says:

    This is an interesting and very timely post. Two nights ago, my wife and I were on our back deck, watching these tiny birds that looked like a cross between a hummingbird and a sparrow. I Googled the description and found that it was more than likely a house wren. Just to be sure, I then Googled “House Wren Birdsong” and a YouTube video came up. I played the video with the speaker turned towards the bird we were watching and, as soon as it heard the song, it flew directly at me and veered away at the last second. It landed on the wire that holds up my backyard string lights and sang the same song. I did this twice with the same results, but it knew better the third time. At least, it knew that there was a non-bird creature where the song was coming from, as it did not repeat the flight, but responded every time I replayed the song…

    The internet is a strange and wonderful thing…

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