Birdsong Beatbox

Audio: An ecologist, a musician and a photographer walk into a recording studio...

A unique scientific collaboration that makes music out of bird calls.

On an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon, there are strange bird calls emanating from a lecture hall at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru. These aren’t the sounds of birds found on the campus or even in the city but sounds heard high up on the mountains of South India . Ecologist VV Robin is working with his partners on an unusual project to start a new conversation about conservation. Robin, American musician Ben Mirin and photographer Prasenjit Yadav are creating a music video featuring the birds of the Western Ghats.

The trio’s first step is a beatbox track compiled from the call of the Travancore Scimitar babbler.
 

The babbler is a striking bird with a long bill and a white eyebrow. Its song is just as remarkable. “The first part of the song is sung by the male and the second part is sung by the female,” said the appropriately named Robin, who has been studying and recording such sounds from the Western ghats for the past 15 years. “But you can’t actually make out when you hear it because it sounds like one song. It’s very unusual and there are very few birds that actually do it like this.”


The catchy bird song fascinated Mirin as soon as he heard it. Mirin, a science writer and musician, is used to looking for music in the world around him. “I listen to sounds, whether it is a car driving by or a person speaking or a bird singing and sometimes hear music just erupting from that sound,” he said. He had previously created beatbox tracks from the bird calls in the New York State area, work that inspired Robin to invite him to work with him in India.


Prasenjit Yadav, the third partner of the unique initiative, said that in this collaboration "Robin brings the scientific quotient, Ben is bringing the music and I bring the visual quotient”. Yadav is a photographer who has spent the last two years capturing images of the Sky-islands in the Western ghats. The Sky-islands are patches of Shola forest and grassland at high elevations that have been disconnected from each other by human habitations lower on the mountains. They include the popular tourist destinations, Ooty and Munnar.

The fragmentation of the sky-islands has put the birds of the mountains in danger. The birds have been around for millions of years, long before humans arrived. The avian population got used to the temperatures at the high elevations. Soon they became restricted to just the mountain tops as the humans carved settlements out from the forests below.


The Sky Islands (Photo: Prasenjit Yadav).


Many of the birds are understory birds that cannot fly long distances or move through 1,000-metre long valleys to get to the next mountain, Yadav explained. The Nigiri pipit is one such grassland bird that is threatened by climate change. The pipit’s habitat has decreased 85% in the last 10 years or so because of the plantations built in the Western ghats a century ago. The pipit is as badly affected as the polar bear but with an even smaller range.  “Because it is at a high elevation even a slight shift in temperature change can affect these species and they have nowhere else to go,” said Yadav.


Nilgiri pipit (Photo: Prasenjit Yadav).


 Robin has seen other effects of habitiat fragmentation. “Some research shows that birdsongs are like human culture and human language, which is that they change with distance and isolation. Once we create breaks in habitats, they are impacted both genetically and in their song,” he said.

Robin, Mirin and Yadav are working together to put a new spin on the conservation of this fragile ecosystem. “I didn’t want to highlight conservation issues in the normal conservation way, which is all doom and gloom," Robin said. "Basically we wanted a more fun, more storytelling, more artistic and more musical way in which people could discover these birds.”


Mirin, Robin and Yadav (Photo: Prasenjit Yadav).


In a series of performances in September, the trio will introduce the bird song beat box to the public, inviting people to go on bird walks  and record birdsongs in the city and later in the sky-islands and create a bigger collection of beat box tracks from the recordings. The final product will be a video narrative with Yadav’s photographs of the birds and the birdsong beat box soundtrack.

Robin hopes that the project will capture the imagination of the general public. Then, maybe, people living in these habitats might start helping by reporting bird sightings ‒ location, time and behaviour. Collating this data can help identify the effects of climate change. “There is the larger question of policy and conservation but first people have to be interested. Otherwise conservation is thought of as very anti-development and in the current political scenario that is especially true,” he said.

“The ultimate goal here is to translate it into the conservation element,” said Mirin. “We don’t want to be left with just the songs. We want to preserve the original composers, which is the birds themselves.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Get ready for an 80-hour shopping marathon

Here are some tips that’ll help you take the lead.

Starting 16th July at 4:00pm, Flipkart will be hosting its Big Shopping Days sale over 3 days (till 19th July). This mega online shopping event is just what a sale should be, promising not just the best discounts but also buying options such as no cost EMIs, buyback guarantee and product exchanges. A shopping festival this big, packed with deals that you can’t get yourself to refuse, can get overwhelming. So don’t worry, we’re here to tell you why Big Shopping Days is the only sale you need, with these helpful hints and highlights.

Samsung Galaxy On Nxt (64 GB)

A host of entertainment options, latest security features and a 13 MP rear camera that has mastered light come packed in sleek metal unibody. The sale offers an almost 40% discount on the price. Moreover, there is a buyback guarantee which is part of the deal.

Original price: Rs. 17,900

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 10,900

Samsung 32 inches HD Ready LED TV

Another blockbuster deal in the sale catalogue is this audio and visual delight. Apart from a discount of 41%, the deal promises no-cost EMIs up to 12 months.

Original price: Rs. 28,890

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 10,900

Intel Core I3 equipped laptops

These laptops will make a thoughtful college send-off gift or any gift for that matter. Since the festive season is around the corner, you might want to make use of this sale to bring your A-game to family festivities.

Original price: Rs. 25,590

Big Shopping Days price: Rs. 21,900

Fashion

If you’ve been planning a mid-year wardrobe refresh, Flipkart’s got you covered. The Big Shopping Days offer 50% to 80% discount on men’s clothing. You can pick from a host of top brands including Adidas and Wrangler.

With more sale hours, Flipkart’s Big Shopping Days sale ensures we can spend more time perusing and purchasing these deals. Apart from the above-mentioned products, you can expect up to 80% discount across categories including mobiles, appliances, electronics, fashion, beauty, home and furniture.

Features like blockbuster deals that are refreshed every 8 hours along with a price crash, rush hour deals from 4-6 PM on the starting day and first-time product discounts makes this a shopping experience that will have you exclaiming “Sale ho to aisi! (warna na ho)”

Set your reminders and mark your calendar, Flipkart’s Big Shopping Days starts 16th July, 4 PM and end on 19th July. To participate in 80 hours of shopping madness, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Flipkart and not by the Scroll editorial team.