Listening Closely to the Birds

Welcome. Pre-dawn, the sounds in the house are few and predictable: the refrigerator lurching to a hum, then off again; the steam knocking in the pipes. This morning, however, the pigeons, delirious with the expanse of dark that was all theirs, thrashed against the windows, landed with thuds on the A/C units. On purpose? By accident? I imagine them sleepy and clumsy, or else showing off to one another, their morning calisthenics.

A few years ago, the artist Duke Riley affixed LED lights to the ankles of 2,000 rock doves and conducted them in a twilight performance over the Brooklyn waterfront. “Pigeons, I think they actually are paying quite a bit of attention to us all the time,” Mr. Riley said in an interview with The Times. “Just as people do, they’re constantly learning and watching and absorbing and taking information and paying a lot of attention to us, even if we’re not paying any attention to them.”

The debate between those who say “pigeons are rats with wings” versus those who argue that “pigeons are beautiful avian specimens that transported messages during World War II” is a low-stakes, high-passion standoff, one where the public health and safety risks pigeons pose are likely to tip the scales. Today, though, I’m appreciating their wing thumps and guttural coos, the soundscape they create.

The blogger Jason Kottke recently wrote about Sounds of the Forest, a collection of “aural tones and textures from the world’s woodlands” displayed on a map. Click anywhere in the world and you can listen to a forest recording from that region. Our attention these days, six months into the pandemic, is seized by the massive changes to our landscapes, the profound shifts we’re observing and undergoing. We might, understandably, forget to notice birdsong underneath, that the pigeons are still paying attention to us even as we keep moving onward and into whatever is next.

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