Most of us, dulled by a lack of variety in our soundscape, might be able to produce only one or two generic birdcalls. “We’ve subverted our minds’ audio-processing abilities to a certain extent.”
Check out a sampler of Jeff Rice recordings.
SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF Spanish Fork, Utah, I’m telling Jeff Rice—a man who makes his living recording nature sounds for the University of Utah Library—about a minor obsession my wife and I have developed. We’ve been tracking a ubiquitous hawk shriek used on television and in Hollywood movies.
The shriek, a piercing cliché, always comes right as the camera sweeps across some treeline—the aural equivalent of sagebrush tumbling through town in an old western. What’s more, the kee-eeeee-arr (as the red-tailed hawk’s scream is spelled by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York) always sounds exactly the same.
Rice, an amiable, unassuming 44-year-old who started out in radio journalism, snaps to attention at the wheel of our rented SUV. “That’s Kevin’s hawk!” he says excitedly, referring to Kevin Colver, a 56-year-old Provo physician and fellow wildlife recordist.
As it happens, Rice had been documenting the great bird’s screen screeches himself, in everything from Rango to The Colbert Report. When he graphed the sonograms, they all looked suspiciously similar to a red-tailed hawk call that Colver had captured in the mid-nineties and sold to the Hollywood Edge, a sound-effects shop. In Rice’s estimation, this became the cry heard round the world, issued by a bird that, with any justice, would be getting some serious residuals.
For me, the overexposed hawk also provides two important lessons about natural sounds. First, the fact that the same screech gets used again and again shows just how hard it is to obtain good nature recordings. “You have to get up early, drive out on a dirt road, get away from everything, and have the right equipment,” says Rice, and even then you might come back with nothing. Rice himself has fallen down ravines and been covered with ticks in a fruitless quest to record the legendary bark of California’s endangered giant salamander.
Second, the cry is a symptom of how acoustically impaired we humans have become. We’re so inured to the idea of natural sound, so generally helpless at identifying its nuances, that we fail to notice that what we hear on TV is often laughably wrong. The red-tailed hawk, Rice says, has been used to ventriloquize everything from vultures to Colbert’s freedom-loving eagle. “Movies have done a disservice,” he says soberly. “They’ve gone with what’s easy.” The bog-standard sound used for frogs, for example, whether on a southern plantation in Forrest Gump or in the bush in India, as in Disney’s The Jungle Book, is actually a chorus of Pacific tree frogs—which live only on the West Coast of the U.S. “Those are the frogs in California that the recordists can go out and get,” Rice says, slightly aghast at the laziness of it all.
And it’s not just mass-market entertainment that’s to blame. As nature filmmaker Chris Palmer explained in Shooting in the Wild, a 2010 nonfiction tell-all about the documentary business, even National Geographic and Discovery Channel producers slip manufactured sounds into their finished products. When I speak with Colver, he recalls an episode of the PBS show Nature that focused on a woman who tracked wild horses in Montana. “They had all the right birds, but it was autumn—and those birds don’t sing in autumn,” Colver says. “Those who listen,” he adds, suggesting that most people don’t, “find this either amusing or annoying.”
Like the great majority of people—especially the majority where I live, in Brooklyn, New York—I wouldn’t have noticed one way or the other. So I thought I might try, if only for a weekend, to learn how to listen in a world that is at once the background music of our deep evolutionary past and something increasingly alien.