Thumbnail image Paul Maury | Macaulay Library

[MUSIC PLAYING] BEN MIRIN: Welcome to the show.


MAN 1: Words connect us. Joy and wonder, right? All right.


BEN MIRIN: Welcome to today’s webinar, Exploring Nature Through Sound and Music with The Cornell Lab Center for Conservation Bioacoustics and Conservation Media. I’m your host and DJ, Ben Mirin, a PhD student from the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. Thanks so much for joining us.

During today’s program, we’ll be visiting tropical islands in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Malaysia, and explore tropical ocean waters. We’ll meet researchers who will share how their acoustic data contributes to conservation. And I will be transforming those sounds into live music.

Feel free to share your enthusiasm for the event on social media. My handle is @BenMirin, and it’s in my name here on Zoom. You can also share the love with Cornell Lab’s Facebook page @CornellBirds.

You may be surprised to hear sounds today from non-avian species. And of course, we’re the Lab of Ornithology, which is the study of birds. But we also study a host of other taxa. Studying other taxonomic groups gives us a broader perspective on how the biology and conservation of different species and taxa fit together.

Before we get started, I have a few quick announcements. Closed captioning is available. If you’d like to see subtitles, please click the captions button at the bottom of your screen. If you have a question for the presenters, for those of you on Zoom, click the Q&A button located at the bottom of your screen and type your question into that Q&A window. If you like someone else’s question, please upvote that question by clicking the thumbs-up icon.

We’ll be answering some questions verbally. And for others, we’ll be typing our answers, which you’ll be able to see in the Answered column. Please only use the chat for technical support or to share information. We will not be monitoring it for questions. If you want to use the chat, please change To from All Panelists to All Panelists and Attendees.

We are also streaming live to Facebook. If you’re watching on the Cornell Lab’s Facebook page, hello! You can also add your questions to the comments. And we’ll do our best to answer those too.

Also, please be aware that there have been some spam attempts in the past from the Facebook comments. So please do not click on any links in Facebook unless they are posted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. With all that stuff out of the way, let’s get started.

I’m really excited for this first pair of presenters in our panel today, Doctors Wendy Erb and Dena Clink. They are both postdoctoral researchers in the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. And they happened to work in Southeast Asia in some of the places where I’m hoping to do my PhD research. So I think we can all learn a lot from them. Please take it away, Wendy and Dena, and tell us all about what you do.

WENDY ERB: Hi out there, everybody. I’m getting everything set up. And now, it’s the magic moment. Yes! Hi out there to everyone joining us this afternoon from around the globe.

I’ve been watching the chat. We have folks from just about everywhere. It’s really exciting to see you all. Thank you, Ben, and thanks to all the organizers and presenters today. We have a really exciting program for you.

So I’m Dr. Wendy Erb. I’m a postdoctoral scientist at the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics housed here at the Lab of Ornithology. And as a primatologist, my expertise is on the behavior and conservation of wild primates. And I’ve conducted the bulk of my research in Indonesia over the last 15 years.

So we’ll start this afternoon’s tour with a virtual visit to the tropical forests of Borneo, stopping first in an Indonesian part of the island or Kalimantan as it’s known locally. The island of Borneo is the third largest in the world. It’s a global hotspot for biodiversity and home to a spectacular array of species, including all the critters you’re looking at and listening to now, many of which are endemic to the island.

So today, we’re going to focus on Borneo’s singing apes. In a few minutes, you’ll learn all about the island’s musical gibbons. But first, let’s talk about the Bornean orangutan or kahiyu as they are called in the indigenous Dayak Ngaju language of Central Kalimantan. So let’s listen to their song or long call as most primatologists refer to it.




OK, so I’m sure you’re wondering, why on Earth do orangutans sing? Well, the first thing you need to know is that this long call is made only by the flanged males. Those are the big guys with those full-moon faces who are twice the size of females. They weigh in up to 200 pounds.

It’s also important to know that, unlike the other apes, orangutans are semi-solitary. And flanged males are the most solitary age-sex class, spending over 90% of their time alone. And these large-bodied fruit eaters range over very large areas. Though it’s a huge challenge, actually, for scientists to track these guys, some estimates show males range over areas of up to 40 square kilometers. So given this dispersed social arrangement, flanged males make these calls, which can travel over a kilometer even in dense tropical forests, to attract listening females to their location and warn other males to get out of the way.

And perhaps you’re wondering, how does one go about studying orangutans and their sounds? Well, let me begin by saying that, yes, I do have the best job in the world, and I love what I do. It’s also pretty hard work because orangutans are hard to find and pretty easy to lose.

We have to stick with them all day for five long consecutive days. That means we follow them from the time they wake up at 5:00 in the morning until they build a new nest at about 4:00 that evening. We record their sounds, take lots and lots of notes, and collect their poop and pee. We’re back in the lab. We can use those data and samples and recordings to monitor changes in their health in response to changing environmental conditions.

Now, monitoring orangutan populations is not only relevant for science, but it’s also important for preventing their extinction. Sadly, orangutans are now listed as critically endangered as they’ve suffered some really rapid declines in their population in the last decades. Those losses are due in part to conflict-related killing, poaching for food and wildlife trade, as well as forest lost and conversion from logging, industrial agriculture, and these massive wildfires that burn degraded forest and peatlands on a near-annual basis. So this kind of research can also help guide conservation and land use policy to preserve viable populations and habitats.

So as an example for such a research-conservation link, my collaborators and I studied changes in orangutan health and behavior following a long period of haze during the 2015 wildfires in Borneo. We found that orangutans reduced their energy budgets. They rested more, and they traveled less. But despite this energy conserving behavior, we found a spike in the ketones in their urines, in their urine samples, meaning that orangutans were actually catabolizing fat as an energy source, even though they were eating more calories, suggesting that they were in an energy deficit at this time.

And in tandem with those changes, linking back to sound, orangutans, we found, they called less often. They produced calls with fewer roars. And they show vocal changes in their voices, kind of like those that we see in humans smokers. Specifically, their calls were measurably noisier and lower in pitch. So this research highlights some of the important insights that animal sounds might provide scientists about the health of wildlife populations and ecosystems.

Now, in addition to conducting scientific research, I want to say, I’m really lucky to partner with the Borneo Nature Foundation, a wonderful NGO based in Indonesia, and to listen, share, and work collaboratively with local and indigenous communities to protect healthy environments that are critical to their lives and wellbeing as well. I’m especially grateful to the people of Tuanan and Mungku Baru villages for teaching me all about their lives, culture, and the forests of Kalimantan. Together, we’re teaming up to build training and education programs for conservationists and kids alike, that promote sustainable solutions for the forests on which both people and wildlife depend.

OK. Terima kasih, and thanks so much for joining me to learn about these incredible orangutans. Now, let’s pass the mic to Dr. Dena Clink to learn all about Borneo’s other amazing apes, the gibbons. Take it away, Dr. Clink.

DENA CLINK: Hi, everybody, and thank you so much for being here. My name is Dena Clink. And I am also a postdoc in the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. And my work focuses on the other singing ape on Borneo, the gibbon.

And so there are currently four recognized species of gibbons on the island of Borneo. We will be focusing on the northern gray gibbon, the local name, owa-owa. But first, we need to transition from Dr. Erb’s site in the south of Borneo to the north of Borneo to the Malaysian state of Sabah, which is right here.

And to put it into context, to think about the differences between gibbons and orangutans, there are some really interesting differences in their behavior and ecology. So first of all, gibbons are pair-living. So this means that the adult males and females live together, along with their offspring. This is in contrast to orangutans that are solitary. Gibbons live in small territories that the pairs actively defend against other gibbons.

We see two distinct types of long-distance calls. We have males that engage in solos, which is exactly what it sounds like. They will sing alone. And they tend to do that in the really early morning hours.

And then in mated pairs, we also see the males and females will engage in coordinated duets, where the males and females will alternate back and forth. Across gibbon species, we see that there are species-specific duets. So if I were to play you a duet from the white-handed gibbon on Peninsular Malaysia or Thailand, you would be able to tell the difference from the duet of the northern gray gibbon because they sound really, really different.

As primatologists, we’re still trying to elucidate the function of these different long-distance call types. For the duets, we think that, at least in part, it serves a function to defend the territories from other neighboring gibbons. For the male solos, we think, at least in part, it serves to help attract mates and also to communicate amongst males in neighboring territories.

So now, we’re going to shift gears just a little bit to focus on some of my work. And my work, up until now, has focused a lot on the female contribution to the duet, which we call a great call. And so as I mentioned before, there are species-specific differences in the duets. But what I am more interested in are differences within a particular species.

And so what we’re looking at here are two spectrograms. You can think of these as being visual representations of the sound. And just to orient you, on the x-axis, we have time. On the y-axis, we have frequency. And the color corresponds to the power or the pitch at a certain time and frequency.

And so we have two spectrograms from two different gibbon individuals here, gibbon individual females. And so although they follow the species-specific structure where we see longer notes going into shorter notes, I want you to look at these spectrograms to see if you can notice any differences. And then I’ll go ahead and play them for you now here. Now, this is the one on the left.


And now, I’ll play the one on the right.


Hopefully, you were able to hear and see the differences. But if you weren’t, that’s OK. The majority of my work actually focuses on trying to see how well the computer can tell these individuals apart.

And up till now, I have a data set of about 53 different female gibbons. And I’m able to classify the calls to the respective female with about a 95% accuracy, which is really, really good. So this means that their calls are really distinct among individuals.

So you may be wondering how studying individual signatures can help us conserve gibbons. And first, it’s important to put it in context, to think about gibbons and the fact that they are endangered across their range in Southeast Asia. Where I work, in Sabah, one of the really big drivers of deforestation is oil palm. I have a image here that’s actually from one of my field sites.

And so gibbons are losing habitat across their range. And it’s really, really important to have a clear understanding of how many individuals there are in an area for any sort of conservation application. With primates, one of the traditional ways that we track and monitor them is to dart and radio collar them.

With gibbons, this is not ethical because they are really, really high up in the trees. They’re really small. And they’re really agile. So if you were trying to dart them, you could miss. And it would just not be ethical at all. And so a lot of my work focuses on trying to use these individual signatures as a way to track and monitor individuals noninvasively.

And so the idea is that we can go in, and we can record from year to year and understand what’s going on with the individuals in the population in response to logging, to habitat disturbance, to fire, to climate change, to a whole suite of anthropogenic or human disturbances. And of course, I couldn’t do this alone. So I really want to thank all my Malaysian colleagues and collaborators. And if you have any questions, please feel free to put them in the Q&A or to send me an email. Thank you so much.

BEN MIRIN: Thank you, Dena. And thank you, Wendy. I am so excited to learn more about your research because it’s a place that I have just started to work myself. Dena, I had a question for you coming off the back of your presentation.

You said you study primarily the female’s role in this duet. But a duet takes two. So what do you know, and what can we hope to learn more about with regard to the male’s role in this duet?

DENA CLINK: Yeah, yeah, so I do get that question a lot. And so first of all, there are good ecological or biological reasons for us to focus on the female part. And as I mentioned before, the males will engage in the solos. And so they can do that if they’re alone or if they’re in a mated pair.

But the females will only call if they’re in a mated pair. So if we hear a female, we always know that it’s a group. And that’s really important for censusing. The other part is the female part of the duet is really stereotyped. So it’s really easy to pick out, which was good when I was starting out as a bioacoustician. [LAUGHS]

And the other thing too, which is really funny, the female has this really beautiful long, complex part. The male part at the end is, literally, it’s like–


It’s just so underwhelming.


We’ve started to look at that now. And we’ve found that the male contribution has much less individuality as well. So we can assign to the correct male with maybe like 60-50% accuracy. And this really draws into the idea of what the functions are of the different male and female parts. So we think the female part, at least, will convey some information about the individual identity, whereas the male part may just be more communicating with the female, like, yeah, I’m here, go you.


BEN MIRIN: That’s so interesting. And I got to say, I really do love that you’re starting from the female’s role because a lot of the research in bioacoustics, particularly in birds, in my space, has started with a lot of focus on male song. But female birds sing too, and there’s a lot to– not every species, of course. But starting from that viewpoint, I think, is really valuable. So I appreciate your perspective on that.

I wanted to ask Wendy a question too. It’s not acoustically-related, but you mentioned it. You said you study orangutan pee. That’s not sound. How does one do that? [LAUGHS] And why?

WENDY ERB: Well, I’m sure you can imagine that it actually makes some sound as it’s coming and splattering on vegetation on its way down. But no, I don’t–

BEN MIRIN: Fair, fair.

WENDY ERB: I don’t study that sound, it’s true. Yeah, I love to talk about how I get pee because I’m really quite good at it, not to toot my own horn. But what it involves is you show up at the nest where the orangutan’s sleeping, usually like 5 or 10 meters up high.

You find a sapling at just the right length and width. You don’t want it too long so that it’s getting snagged in all the thorny bits there. And you don’t want it too short that you end up getting a morning shower. [LAUGHS]

BEN MIRIN: Ah, no.

WENDY ERB: Enough said. So you find a sapling of the right size and shape. We slice a little 1 kilogram sugar bag and then shimmy it on to the end there. So it’s like a little plastic fishing pole.

And then the really wonderful thing is when orangutan’s wake up, kind of like me, the first thing they do is relieve themselves. And so all one has to do is stand under the urinating orangutan. And they are very generous and provide rather copious samples. And I will say that, Ben, sounds are much easier to collect than pee. And they also don’t require CDC permissions to import into the country. [LAUGHS]

BEN MIRIN: That is– wow, that is so much more technical than I would have anticipated. But you’ve laid out this regimen for pee collection that is just on another level.

WENDY ERB: I’m sure you can see it all in your mind.

BEN MIRIN: I sort of can.

WENDY ERB: But the idea is that we have this really labor intensive method here, where we’re following orangutans and writing down everything they do and everything they eat and collecting all these samples. And we’re hoping that a lot of the information that we get from all of that detailed labor and hard work, we can actually capture in the sounds of the animals themselves so that we can use tool as a way to monitor populations at larger scales using a lot less person power and a lot less import samples and dry ice. [LAUGHS]

BEN MIRIN: Gotcha, gotcha. Between the two of you, you have nearly two decades of research experience in this part of the world. And that is amazing to me. I have a month. And in that month, which– in that month, I went to Sarawak, which is on the Malaysian side of Borneo, like where Dr. Clink works.

But Sarawak is south of Sabah. So if you imagine Borneo here, I’m on this side. And in that month, I went to stay with a Punan indigenous community or, as they say in a lot of Borneo, the Dayaks. And I worked with them to coauthor a soundscape recording that I’d love to share with the two of you, just to get your expert perspective and your expert ears on it.


Reactions, thoughts? What does that bring to mind for the two of you?

WENDY ERB: I mean, I hear lots of familiar invertebrates in there. The vertebrate that’s in there– I work in a peat swamp forest, which I think is not the habitat that you were in.

BEN MIRIN: No, it’s not.

WENDY ERB: And we have an expert among us who knows those vertebrate sounds really well. So I’m going to let Dr. Clink talk about what she heard.

DENA CLINK: (LAUGHING) Yes, so I’m a primatologist that’s now becoming an ornithologist.


DENA CLINK: We actually have a paper coming out today, I think, on these birds. So the sound that you heard, and I always think it sounds like they’re saying, ta-wau, ta-wau. And there’s actually a town in Sabah, Malaysia, called Tawau. So I always think of that when I hear this call.

But they’re great argus pheasants. And they’re actually more well-known for their visual displays. And they’ll clear the forest floor. And it’s actually really fun. When you’re walking the trails, you can actually see these parts where they’ve cleared all of the leaves and everything.

I’ve never seen one in person or live doing the visual displays. But they have this really– they’ll run around the female and then put their feathers in all these really cool intricate ways. And so they have two types of long distance calls. So the one that we just heard, the ta-wau one, we call that one the short one because they’re little short things.

And then there’s another one called the long call, which I will not try to emulate right now. But it’s a long complex thing that reminds me in a way of the gibbon female call. And that’s actually how I ended up studying them because they’re in the same frequency range, same number of repetition of elements. And so my automated detectors would pull out the argus, thinking it was a gibbon. So that’s how science happens sometimes.

BEN MIRIN: That’s awesome.

DENA CLINK: (LAUGHING) It was just by complete accident.

BEN MIRIN: But it shows the efficiency of bioacoustics as a means for studying lots of different things. And you could end up with pieces of data that can produce a whole new paper. By the way, congrats, I had no idea it was coming out today.

DENA CLINK: Yeah, that’s perfect.

BEN MIRIN: That’s awesome. Yeah, what a coincidence. How nice of the journal to coordinate with us.



BEN MIRIN: Well, thanks, thanks so much for your thoughts on that, guys. I really appreciate it. When I was recording that sound, I was splitting the signal between two sets of headphones. And Garen Jengan whose image is featured in our promotional poster, was listening alongside me.

And he told me that when he– so the Penan peoples started off as a nomadic people that lived in the forest. And Garen, Uncle Garen as we call him, is a member of the last generation to have lived nomadically before the Penan settled down and shifted to a more agrarian lifestyle and means of supporting themselves. And he said it was really important to be able to tell the time of day based on the changing sounds of the insects and the birds.


And so I would listen to soundscapes like this with him. And he would say, we’d have to know what time it was because it gets really, really dark in the forest. And right before night falls, if you heard the cicadas going, you know that it’s time to make camp while it’s still safe and while you can still see in front of you.

And I sort of sheepishly asked him, Uncle Garen, is it OK if I ask you what time it is? Because I had never heard of this kind of knowledge before. He said, it’s about 5 o’clock. And I looked at my watch. And it was 4:50.

So this just goes to show that there– in our research, we have our own Western methods of doing things. But there are also other systems of knowledge that we can benefit from, to accrue this data and make use of it. Speaking of making use of data, let’s use some of your sounds to make our next beat.



Now, everybody– can you bounce? Bounce again. Now move.

For our next stop on this world tour through music and sound, we’re visiting a habitat beneath the waves. Our next guest is Dr. Michelle Fournet, a postdoctoral researcher also from the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. And she’s here to introduce us to the magic and the science of humpback whale vocalizations. Please take it away, Dr. Fournet.

MICHELLE FOURNET: Thank you. Well, I’m so pleased to be able to share this with you and to tell you a little bit of the other side of the story of what happens when you leave the island and go under the ocean. And I am going to talk to you today about some of the sounds that Ben’s been using and will continue to use to make this music, and sounds that you hear specifically in this Indo-Pacific region, but also things that we might hear there that we’d hear a little more globally.

What can we learn by listening in one place and then spreading out our perspective a little bit more broadly? And Wendy and Dena did such a lovely job at setting the stage and talking about individual variation and who is producing these songs. And the term “song” covers all manner of sins. And in humpback whales, in particular, song means something very specific. When we talk about song, we’re talking about a signal that is– well, here, here, listen.


We’re talking about a sound that is repeated, that’s structured, very much like human music. So in the same way that we have words and can have conversations, but that doesn’t necessarily make music, humpback whales can have sounds, but it doesn’t necessarily make song. So song is something specific to breeding behavior. And it’s sung only by the males.

So Dena was talking quite a bit about listening to female sounds and how the songs of the gibbons have been the focus of female research. But for humpback whales, almost all of the research that was done until very recently was done on the sounds produced by males and in the tropics, in these breeding areas. And each song is unique to a population. So it is created and culturally shared among male whales within a certain region. But song–




MICHELLE FOURNET: Song is just one piece of the puzzle. If male whales are producing structured, repeated, complex, culturally-transmitted sounds during the breeding season, does that mean that female whales aren’t producing sounds at all or that juvenile whales aren’t making sounds? And what are the kernels of sound that make up these songs that are unique to a population?

Well, that’s something very different. That’s something that we refer to, in my line of work as a marine bioacoustician, as a call. And each of those unique sounds, that then get paired together and structured into phrases and then put together to form a song, can actually be distilled into single call types.

And when you look at call types, what we found is, unlike song which is unique to a population, we can hear calls that are shared all over the world, that animals in Southeast Asia are producing the same call types, like this growl–


–as animals in Southeast Alaska. And moreover, what we find with calls is that instead of changing year to year the way that song does and being culturally transmitted, that these calls persist from generation to generation to generation. And they’re passed down over time.

And that persistence is so strong that we found that humpback whale populations that are separated by as many as three million years still share the same call types. And this global foundation is important because calls can be rearranged to make song. But they can also be rearranged to make different types of conversations, like this one.


And within each of those sounds, what research we’re doing here at the Lab of Ornithology, I’ve started looking for a sense of voice. So similar to the way that the gibbons have individual variation in their calls that tells you something about who is who, within this suite of innate calls, the calls that are produced by baby whales, female whales, male whales in every population, there appears to be a unique recognition.

So in the same way that you and I can identify people we’re familiar with by the sound of their voices, particularly if they’re saying words that we’ve heard before, in humpback whales, we think what we’re hearing within these innate calls that persist within song, between song, between populations, and in the acoustic interactions of social sounds, that there might be something telling you who you are and how you’re feeling. And so ultimately, by looking at each of these units very closely, we can begin to identify individuals by the sound of their voices, whether or not they’re singing or they’re just conversing. Thanks.

BEN MIRIN: Michelle, thank you so much. I feel like I could talk to you about your research for hours. And frankly, I intend to, so just prepare yourself for that. But for the sake of our viewers, I do have a couple of questions.

First of all, you talked about call types a lot. And I think that’s a new concept for people. Are all of these calls shared worldwide or just some of them?

MICHELLE FOURNET: Oh, no, just some of them. That’s part of what’s so lovely about this work. So where songs are unique to a population, some calls but not all calls seem to be shared ubiquitously worldwide, as if there is this foundational repertoire that all humpback whales produce. And they start producing it at a very young age. So even young whales will produce these sounds that we can recognize.

But they’re not all shared. In some populations, we hear sounds that, despite our best efforts, we have never identified anywhere else. And those calls appear to be more specific to the social context or to the behavioral context of the whales that are producing them. So for example, in Southeast Alaska, humpback whales produce a feeding call that we’ve never found in the North Atlantic or in foraging grounds anywhere else. But most calls, though not all, will appear in song within their population.

BEN MIRIN: OK, thank you for that. And I must ask– I loved that recording you played of the intense amount of vocal activity. I felt like I was in the aquatic realm while you were playing that. Where were you when all this was happening?

MICHELLE FOURNET: Oh, I was in a kayak with a small dip hydrophone. That was actually a really extraordinary research moment. As most acousticians, I’m very fortunate in that my goal is to spend as much time as I can with my steady species with the aim of my species never knowing that I’m there. And so a lot of the work that I do is done either safely and ethically from kayaks, where we have no engines in the water because boat noise changes the behavior of the animals, or is done from boats that are left adrift. So we’re just out on the ocean on a boat that’s completely turned off.

So in that particular instance, I think you picked up on something really important. There’s quite a cacophony of sound there. And you could hear the energy in that particular recording. That day, we had one of the highest aggregations of humpback whales that I’ve ever seen. I think we had somewhere between 30 and 40 individuals within just a few kilometers of each other, and that’s unusual.

BEN MIRIN: Wow! Yeah.

MICHELLE FOURNET: We don’t often get these mega-aggregations of humpbacks like that. But that sound, that energy is reflected in the conversation that the animals themselves are having. So that’s actually something that we’re also starting to look at right now is whether or not we can use calls to understand something about motivation state.

And when we talk about motivation of animals, that’s sort of an animal proxy for emotion. So are they in a state of aggression, or appeasement, or arousal. And so by looking at the different properties of these sounds that the animals are making, we can begin to understand something about how the animal is– what’s motivating it to do what it does and that–


MICHELLE FOURNET: –paritcular sample was a great example of that.

BEN MIRIN: Thank you, Dr. Fournet. I really appreciate your time. I think I speak for a lot of people in this event with us right now when I say that humpback whale song makes me feel quite emotional as well. And I just wanted to share with some folks the tracks that I started to work with to make this recording. It’s just natural unaffected whale song.


Let’s add a beat to it.


Freak out, freak out!


These sounds are from the final stop on our world tour today. We now find ourselves in Papua New Guinea, listening to some of the most stunning birds, visually and acoustically, on the planet. To tell us more about them as Dr. Edwin Scholes of the Birds-of-Paradise Project. Please welcome him here today. Thanks so much for joining us, Ed, and tell us about your research.

EDWIN SCHOLES: Hi, Ben, thanks for the introduction, let me get the share going here. All right, I think I’m good. It’s working for you? All good?

BEN MIRIN: I see it now, yes.

EDWIN SCHOLES: Great. All right, everybody, whoops. All right, Ben, thanks for that introduction. And my name is Ed Scholes. And I’m a scientist at the lab who uses audio-visual media to document, and study, and help protect New Guinea’s birds-of-paradise.

So today, I’m going to take you on a brief virtual journey to experience a few of the most vocally interesting bird-of-paradise species. So now that you’ve become a little bit more familiar with the biodiversity and the sounds of that biodiversity from this part of the world, I want to draw your attention to a couple of things.

First, that this region is home to one of the world’s three main tropical rainforests. The other two you might be more familiar with are the Amazon in South America or the Congo Basin in Central Africa. And the second point is that New Guinea, the island of New Guinea and nearby islands, are the exclusive home for most of the about 40 species of birds-of-paradise.

Now, over the last 20 years, this region has lost an incredible amount of forests, largely to the reasons that Wendy and Dena described in their presentations earlier. The only sizeable areas of undisturbed rainforest remaining in the whole region are those in Northern Sumatra, Central Borneo, and quite a bit in the island of New Guinea.

In fact, New Guinea contains about half of the intact forest remaining in the entire Indo-Pacific region. So protecting these forests is critical not only for species like the birds-of-paradise or the indigenous peoples that live there but for all of us because of the global benefits, like carbon sequestration, that these forests provide.

All right, now onto the birds. Today, we’re going to head way over here. See that white star there? We’re heading over to the far Eastern tip of New Guinea’s Papuan Peninsula, where, just offshore, there is a chain of volcanic islands. And these islands are the exclusive home to two of the most vocally wonderful of all the birds-of-paradise species. Now, if we were to step into the forests of Ferguson Island there–


–and start trekking up this muddy footpath, the sounds began to come alive with just only a few meters into the forest. And from up in the canopy, we can already begin to hear the sounds of the birds that have drawn us all this way. This is a male Goldie’s bird-of-paradise. Goldie’s is a highly plumed canopy-displaying species and one that makes a wonderful array of sounds during its courtship.

I like to give them a chance to speak for themselves. [CHUCKLES] So as you saw, males perform their courtship displays in pairs. And their movements and sounds are coordinated. And at times, they’re synchronized. And when females arrive, they perch behind the males and look on from above and behind, where the colors of the plumage are the most intense and brightest.

Now, if we were to continue our journey through this special forest–


–we might come across this unassuming bird-of-paradise. This is a curl-crested manucode. Much less ornamented and more crow-like than Goldie’s, this species has a haunting voice unlike anything else that any of the other birds-of-paradise have.

And at close range in a good light, like we were fortunate enough to see at this nest, you get a better appreciation for their plumage, which isn’t as gaudy as Goldie’s. But it’s elaborate in its own way. So I’d love to be able to take you on a journey and explore the sounds of a lot more birds-of-paradise, both here in Fergusson Island or elsewhere. I’m going to have to leave you with that today.

BEN MIRIN: Ed, that was so cool, just watching the videos and hearing these incredible calls, and seeing the behavior up close like that. That’s really amazing. And I got to say, the manucode, while visually, perhaps, unassuming, has a voice that puts it in a league all its own.

So folks, today is an exciting day for all of us because we get to share with you a song that I’ve created specifically for this event using Ed’s data. I built it with his input. And I’ve been using this piece of equipment. It’s called an Ableton Push.

It’s a pattern sequencer, a looper, a composition tool. And I can use it to play the live music you’ve been hearing today. Ed, I wanted to share with you one more, if I could, sound that you sent to me that I just found incredibly musical.


Let me see if I can get it louder.


EDWIN SCHOLES: I know that bird.

BEN MIRIN: Tell us about that bird.

EDWIN SCHOLES: That’s a pale-billed sicklebill. So like the manucode, it’s not nearly as gaudy and ornamented as a lot of the other birds-of-paradise. And it has this long, beautifully decurved, light-colored pale bill, as you would imagine from its name. It lives in the lowland swamp forest of the northwestern part of New Guinea, in the Indonesian half of New Guinea, pretty far away from those that we saw earlier.

And it has this spectacularly variable vocal repertoire that’s really poorly known. And only a handful of recordings exist. But it’s sounds like individuals just really mix it up and are highly, highly variable. We hope to learn more about that species sometime in the future.

BEN MIRIN: I will say that I’ve mixed it up a bit myself by slicing and dicing that recording into smaller bits that I can play as digital instruments.


So I have a whole array here of different birds-of-paradise sounds. But when you layer them together, you create these larger musical ideas that sound a bit like this.


Oops. Sometimes, when you’re listening to these sounds, we hear one more sound that just inspires a new musical idea. You have to keep going, like that.



The beauty and nature that we’ve celebrated today is fragile. Whether a musician, a scientist, or a fan of either industry, I hope this event has made you feel the way it does for us, a little closer to nature and inspired to understand it more deeply. Because when we understand something, we can come to love it. And when we love it, we’re inspired to protect it for future generations.

Thank you to all our presenters and to all of you for coming today. Again, please share your enthusiasm for this event. You can tag me @BenMirin on social media, also @CornellBirds. And all of the folks who are part of the panel today have their own emails, their own social media accounts. So go check them out for more of their amazing work.

We’re going to transition now to a Q&A. We’ve got a great list of questions to advance our understanding and our love of nature. So I’d like to bring back our panelists with a digital round of applause and extra level of thanks. So thank you to all of you for making this so, so fun and so important and meaningful to, as a learning experience, for me and for all of us.

I’ve got a couple questions, starting with, Ed, I guess, since he’s on the back end. Are you able to identify what musical scale these birds-of-paradise sing in? Do most of the birds sing in the major or minor scales? [CHUCKLING] Interesting question.

EDWIN SCHOLES: Wow, it is a good question. And I wish I was more of a musician and less of a biologist. So I might have to rely on my colleagues here. You know, I do a lot of recording of bird-of-paradise sounds in my effort to document the family and study their diversity.

But out of this whole panel of experts here, I am probably the only one who’s done the smallest amount of bioacoustics research. And I’m probably the worst, least-educated musician. Anybody else want to take a stab at that?

BEN MIRIN: Well, one thing I will say is that when you’re working with these sounds, musically, they often occupy microtones in between human keys of music. And one of the rules I apply it to my compositions is that I don’t autotune anything. So if I work with instruments, I end up having to detune them to match the tune of orangutan, the key of orangutan or the key of humpback whale. It has to be natural.

So that’s usually how I think of it, actually. And I realize that’s not a direct answer. I think, sometimes they occupy minor pentatonic scales, I’ve come across a lot. But it’s really interesting. There are these interesting opportunities to see how human music and natural music echo each other and share some rules and diverge in other ways.

EDWIN SCHOLES: Yeah, I spent so much time in the past studying the behavior and the choreography of the movement in birds-of-paradise. And there’s a lot of parallels always made to dance and birds-of-paradise obviously in the movements. But it’s definitely there in music as well.

BEN MIRIN: Yeah, I had a question from the chat for Michelle. Can the sound research that you do be used to help protect these humpback whales? I know you touched a little bit on that. But some folks are interested, if you could say a little more.

MICHELLE FOURNET: Yeah, absolutely, and there are several different ways. And in fact, that is what drives everything I do. So there are two schools of thought on that. The first is a really practical one, which is, if we know what the whales are saying, we can perhaps produce those sounds ourselves to illicit a reaction. If there is a humpback whale call that says, come hither, and I’m trying to draw a whale away from danger, I can broadcast that call when the whale is in a dangerous situation, like perhaps it’s gotten caught upriver as we’ve seen in the Sacramento River a few times.

But then, more broadly, behavioral ecology is essential to conservation. If we don’t understand why these sounds matter, then we don’t have any sort of foundation with which to describe to managers and lawmakers and the public why we need to protect them. If an animal is producing a sound that is critical to its survival, we need to know that. Otherwise, if a boat passes by, and the sound of a humpback whale growl is warped or is masked, then we might, unfortunately, assume that it’s indifferent. That it doesn’t make a difference.

But by knowing what these sounds are used for, we can begin to make a case for their conservation. So the practical side of that– I’m going to use this call to help you. And then there is also the ethical side of that. If I understand its value, then I will change my human behavior.

BEN MIRIN: Got it. Dena, I have a question for you. Do the gibbon voices change as they age?

DENA CLINK: Yeah, that was a really wonderful question. So there is evidence that the structure of the call is genetically determined. But then we also see that there are some developmental aspects as well. There’s a really wonderful paper that shows– and I have even seen it in my recordings as well– that the juveniles will track the mom’s calls. But they do it imperfectly.

So you can see, it’s like, they’re higher frequency. And then sometimes the notes are almost the same. But then sometimes, they’re off a little bit. And we just learned recently that both the males and the females do that, even though it’s the female-specific calls when they become adults.

But then the next question, thinking about the stability of the individual signatures, there have been a few papers that have shown, over the course of a couple years, that individual A will sound like individual A three years down the line. But I have not done any of that work in my specific species. And that’s something that I’m really hoping to do because, particularly for these long-term studies, if you want to track and monitor them, you need to make sure that you’re actually identifying the same individuals and that they aren’t changing over time. So there’s still a lot that we need to learn as well.

BEN MIRIN: Got it, got it. Wendy, I have a question for you that’s– you talk about how you love your job so much. Do you have a favorite part of the work that you do?

WENDY ERB: Oh, thank you so much, Ben, for asking and for the audience member that popped that in there. It’s always one of my favorite ones and the hardest question to ask because, really, I love everything about my job. Like, look, these are my colleagues. I’m the luckiest person on Earth.

BEN MIRIN: I think we all feel that way.

WENDY ERB: But probably the moment that I feel most connected to what I do is not at the moment that I’m sitting at my laptop in the bioacoustics Raven software drawing little boxes around orangutan song. I mean, it’s fun. And it can get you through some long nights.

But really, it’s those moments just sitting in the forest and listening. And I especially love it when I hear an orangutan long call. And I can take off (LAUGHING) and try to chase down the orangutan so I can get some pee from it.

And then, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how Indonesia has just become a real second home to me. The people there have embraced me and shown me the greatest kindness and love and taught me so much about the forests and about myself. So like I said, I have the best job in the world.

BEN MIRIN: Thank you again to all of you for your contributions to the program today. I have learned a lot. I think our audience has learned a lot. And folks, if you still have lingering questions you want to ask these people, there are ways to send those questions around.

So once again, thank you to Michelle, Wendy, Dena, and Ed, and to the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics and Conservation Media. Also, a huge thank you to everyone that came out today. You asked great questions. If we didn’t get to your question, please email us. And we’ll be happy to follow up with you more directly.

For general questions about the Cornell Lab, about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, bird ID help, or pretty much any random question about birds, please email our public information team at For more technical questions about the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, you can email And it occurs to me that what I’m reading here for the tie-up part doesn’t mention how to contact for the Conservation Media folks. Do you want to recommend a particular channel for them to follow? Or should they just look up the website?

EDWIN SCHOLES: Yeah, I would recommend just looking at the website. The Conservation Media group at the Lab basically produces a lot of media for different programs at the Lab but also a lot for partners. So a lot of the things that you would see if you followed the Lab online, website, or social media, would be done in conjunction with our program.

BEN MIRIN: Cool, cool. So we’re dropping those emails into the chat and the Facebook comments right now. As we sign off, I’m going to perform one last piece to take us out. But again, thank you to everyone who came out today. We’ll see you next time.



End of transcript

Take an auditory journey though tropical islands and oceans with the Cornell Lab’s Center for Conservation Bioacoustics as we combine science and music for an hour of entertainment, information, and audience Q&A. Our researchers show you how they study the magnificent animals of the area by capturing their wild sounds, and DJ Ecotone (Ph.D. student Ben Mirin) transforms these sounds into live music during the session. Join us February 16, at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time.