A High Note

From his Downtown Manhattan apartment, PRIOR team member Ben Hannon—who is more accustomed to the sounds of bars and clubs—now listens to an unfamiliar chorus.

As I sit in my little apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the sounds of the city which I’ve become numb to—the honking cabs, the idle chit chat, the shrieking of the subway coming to sudden halt—are all but absent. It’s as if someone hit ‘mute’ on the New York Spring soundtrack button. Yet by no means has this been a silent season. The noises that make New York so New York—the city that never sleeps—have been replaced by the soft murmur of breeze. And of birdsong. In Washington Square Park, where the daffodils, magnolias, and tulips are in glorious bloom, the birds are everywhere. As humans have sheltered indoors, the birds have come to rule the city.

I’ve been waking up to the “whisper song” of the Blue Jay—a soft, quiet mix of clicks, chucks, whirrs, and whines, a single call of which can last longer than two minutes. As I sit at home, my perspective on the world fixed, I’ve come to notice how the birds’ songs and calls shift throughout my day, making their own sort of time keeping. The Downy Woodpecker’s whinnying call—an excited string of hoarse, high-pitched notes that descend in pitch toward the end—floods through my apartment by midday. Then come the Brown Thrashers, which, like mockingbirds, continue adding to their repertoires as they grow older by mimicking sounds in their environment—including other birds, cabs honking, sirens, and car alarms. These foxy brown birds have an extremely varied range of calls, consisting of more than a thousand song types. They sing loud, long series of doubled phrases with no definite beginning or end; it has been phonetically (and brilliantly) described in vocabulary as “plant a seed-plant a seed, bury it-bury it, cover it up-cover it up, let it grow-let it grow, pull it up-pull it up, eat it-eat it.” And perhaps the sweetest of them all: the raspy, two-parted song of the plump little Eastern Phoebe that visits towards the end of my day. Its song last lasts about half a second: “fee-bee….fee-bee….”

Many of us have observed that the birds seem to be singing much louder than in springs past. It’s been shown, however, that they’ve actually become quieter this season, by about six decibels, since they no longer have to sing louder to be heard over the commotion of the city—a behavior known as the Lombard effect. We’ve just been able to hear them more clearly than ever before.

For me, and many others not living in major cities (but even for some of those), birdsong has been the soundtrack of the pandemic: nature so loud it has entered and filled my home. Apparently, psychologists have been studying the “restorative benefits” of birdsong for years now. Of all the sounds in nature, bird songs and calls are among the most often cited as helping people recover from anxiety and stress, allowing us to refocus and restore our attention.

Slowly, the notes of humanity are adding themselves back into the soundtrack. The clanking of scaffolding being erected and dismantled below windows; the voices further below, even at 4am. People are back, the once daily sounding over the skyscrapers in gratitude to health care workers now spread more evenly through the day.

But let’s hope the birds’ songs, and the clarity with which we’ve come to hear them, remain a poignant reminder—life goes on, the world keeps turning. The English poet Ted Hughes famously wrote about the return of swifts each spring: “They’ve made it again/Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s/Still waking refreshed, our summer’s/Still all to come…” And the American poet Marcus Malloch put it this way: “You have to believe in happiness, or happiness never comes … Ah, that’s the reason a bird can sing…on his darkest day he believes in spring.”

On the grimmest days of the last months, the birdsong surprised and sustained us.

Ben Hannon

Ben Hannon works on PRIOR’s content & editorial team, after having worked at the New York Times in Beijing. He received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, and speaks Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish. He is based in New York.

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