For a few mornings throughout April, while Dublin was in the first lockdown, sound artist Christopher Steenson wandered towards the Royal Canal in Phibsborough.
Before the sun rose Steenson set up an ambisonic microphone by the canal.
“It has four different capsules so it allows you to record 360 degrees,” he says.
Then he waited to capture the chirps, cheeps, and squawks of the birds that lived there.
The morning beeps and grumbles from lorries, sirens and buses were as quiet as possible, he says.
“It was like the birds were taking over the urban soundscape in a way,” Steenson says.
The recordings were supposed to be used for an exhibition, to see what the dawn chorus sounded like with little human interference. But the exhibition, like many others in the city, was cancelled due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Now, during the second lockdown, Steenson is using these recordings to bring the sound of nature to some commutes.
The project, On Chorus, which started on 16 November and runs through to 29 November, can now be heard throughout all train stations in Dublin, as well as some others around the country.
Says Steenson: “It’s a way of connecting people during a time where we have to be distant.”
Last year, in a separate project, Steenson began looking at the impact sounds from electromagnetic fields have on birds.
These electromagnetic fields “emit from cell phone masts, plug sockets and mobile phones and computers”, Steenson says. “They’re everywhere.”
Humans can’t hear it but birds can, Steenson says.
He recorded the electromagnetic field sounds and played them through BirdNET, an app which detects bird sounds.
When Steenson tweaked the pitch of the recordings, the app thought the recording was of a real bird chirping, he says.
“This is about false detection. The idea of how birds falsely detect or get confused by electromagnetic fields,” he says.
It has serious consequences, he says. “It interferes with how birds navigate because birds rely on the electromagnetic spectrum to navigate around their environment.”
The Dawn Chorus
“The dawn chorus is actually one of my favourite things in the whole world,” says Niall Hatch , pr and development officer of BirdWatch Ireland, last Thursday.
It’s sung by wild birds to mark their territory or call for a mate, he says. “It’s at its loudest just around dawn when the day is breaking.”
During the dawn chorus, which happens from April to June, the birds will sing in a particular order, he says.
Birds with the largest eyes, such as blackbirds, will sing earliest, he says. They “are able to see better in low light levels”.
“When a bird is singing he is giving away his position to predators in the neighbourhood,” Hatch says. Birds won’t sing until they can spot predators such as cats and foxes.
Hatch worked as a consultant on this project alongside Steenson, and was able to tell him exactly which birds were singing in his recordings.
“The blackbird has a mellow, low kind of sound,” Hatch says, their songs have a slow pace and aren’t rushed like the other birds.
“The songbird, however, is a bit higher-pitched,” he says. The songbird sings repeated quick notes in brief succession.
Tuning in to Train Stations
Steenson’s original plan was an exhibition but that was cancelled because of Covid-19. Instead, he is broadcasting his dawn chorus recordings over public sound systems in railway stations.
The intention is to provide a natural soundscape to people who still get the train these days such as frontline workers, Steenson says.
“Through listening, there is a way of having an experiential connection with another person,” he says.
It’s nice to know that strangers will be listening to the same recording at the same time, he says.
The recordings are also on the On Chorus website for those who are stuck at home.
Says Hatch: “It really reduces stress. It makes people feel more in tune with nature.”
“I think that it will be really interesting to see if there will be any reaction, if any, from commuters when it goes live across the network,” says Steenson.