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One night last winter I heard a great horned owl, grabbed my recording gear and ran out to the back porch. Two owls in my yard hooted back and forth; a second pair to the west responded. My yard must be on the border between two territories.
I had never heard four owls howling simultaneously, but my recording was horrible. In the four decades we’ve lived in our quiet residential neighborhood of Duluth, Minnesota, the background noise has faded from my consciousness even as it has grown louder. A quarter of a mile to the north and south are regularly-trafficked avenues; a snowmobile trail passes beyond. My microphone picked up trucks and a snowmobile, overpowering the hooting of owls. Gas furnaces, barking dogs, two planes flying overhead, cars starting, doors slamming – the ordinary sounds of human life scrambled the recording of the irreparable owl.
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My neighborhood is quiet by city standards, but places much further away are also noisy. My mother-in-law lived in rural Wisconsin, half a mile from her nearest neighbor and a highway, and a mile from Lake Superior, but virtually all of my recordings from her home include traffic noise and motorboats or snowmobiles.
We subconsciously filter out most of the background noise from our daily soundtrack. I notice mermaids in my neighborhood but I filter them out in Chicago or New York. Some everyday sounds are too loud to filter out. I grew up on a flight path near O’Hare Airport. When a jet approached, without even thinking about it, we stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence, resuming after the passage of the jet.
Birds also compensate for background noise. In 2017, researchers at George Mason University found that in three urban parks in greater Washington D.C., eastern wood pewees produced shorter, narrower-frequency-range songs than normal to be heard at above traffic noise. Pewees there have declined by 50% in recent decades, and noise may be a factor; females seem to prefer mates that sing normal songs. During the 36-hour weekend road closures, the birds in the study produced more natural songs. Perhaps the temporary road closures could benefit urban songbirds that adjust their songs to fluctuating traffic noise levels.
Man-made noise-free zones are increasingly hard to find, but a project called ‘One Square Inch’ is trying to raise awareness about how noisy our world has become and the importance and restoration of noise. a truly natural soundscape. Organizers have marked off 1 square inch in the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park, 3.2 miles from the Visitor Center above Mount Tom Creek Meadows on the Hoh River Trail, as “one square inch of silence”, its all-natural soundscape. It may be the quietest place in the lower 48 states in terms of man-made sounds.
“Silence is not the absence of something,” says founder Gordon Hempton, “but the presence of everything.” Being able to record the nuances of four great horned owls hooting on a winter night would have meant everything to me.