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Signals from Songbirds & Abstract Soundscapes

February 11, 2020 at Rutledge Cab. Co, Charleston, SC.

Presented by:

Dr. Melissa Hughes, Professor of Ornithology, Animal Behavior, and Evolution at the College of Charleston, Department of Biology

Marielena Martinez, MFA, local artist and STEAM educator with Cultivate SciArt, the Gibbes Museum of Art, and Engaging Creative Minds

Some highlights from this evening of science, art and community in action.

Rise early and you are rewarded with the melodies of songbirds. But why do they sing? Animal behaviorist and evolutionary biologist Dr. Melissa Hughes shared highlights from her research into the sounds of songbirds. What do these signals mean? How are they used? How do they vary? We explored the diversity of bird songs to bring a new appreciation to our Carolina morning soundscapes. Marielena Martinez then showed us how to turn these soundscapes into abstract art, inspired by some of the work of Joan Miro. Audubon South Carolina was also on hand to advise participants on native plantings and habitat to appreciate more birds in their own backyards, with native perennial seeds to take home.

Scroll down for a step-by-step guide to make your own abstract soundscape art and useful links to get involved with birdwatching, advocacy and citizen science projects.

Interpreting the “Alien” Language of Songbirds

Dr. Melissa Hughes began the evening’s science talk with one question, “Who likes SciFi?” Hughes explained that SciFi is enjoyed because of the alternate realities and different worlds that are brought to life for us to enjoy. “Birds are like that,” she stated. With their own drama and language, birds are fascinating because of the different world they seem to live in. Birds can fly, they live in every environment imagined, and they have their own language -- They seem pretty “alien” to me! But surprisingly, when you delve deep into the meaning behind their songs, you will find that they are not too different from ourselves. And figuring out what birds are singing helps us understand their lives.

Hughes explaining how to compare different bird songs using sonograms.
Hughes explaining how to compare different bird songs.

We humans are visual animals, so in order to understand songbirds, we need to learn how to see what we hear. Birds hear faster than humans do, meaning they can hear things that are happening more quickly [1]. So to study birdsong, scientists use sonograms - pictures of sounds that are similar to musical notation showing changes in sound frequency and pitch over time (and not to be confused with the images of in utero babies created by bouncing high-frequency sound off internal structures). Bird researchers also rely on slowing down the sound recordings to better compare the patterns. You can explore bird songs and their sonograms yourself by visiting, where you will find recordings of birds from all over the world.

"By recording songbirds and studying their songs, the bird drama and the similarities they have to human lives can be revealed." - Dr. Melissa Hughes

Using Sonograms to Understand Animal Communication

Hughes went on to explain her research on populations of songbirds (Melospiza melodia) in Pennsylvania. In order to study songbirds, there are a few basic steps that she takes: capturing, tagging, recording, and monitoring each bird of study. Through her research, she has been able to identify how songs are used for territory protection [2,3], attracting females [4], and even attitudes such as detecting aggression [5]. So those sounds you hear on a sunny morning could be a bird asking another bird out on a date, young birds learning how to sing from their parents, or an adult bird yelling to a trespassing bird “get off my property!

Where do they learn these songs? Songbirds acquire their songs within their first year [6]. The songs they learn are reflective of what they hear growing up, from their parents, neighboring birds, or for some a more unique source. A member in the audience speculated what happens to the “odd bird out?” According to Hughes, some evidence shows that they are not able to hold their territory for long, and are not popular with females. “If they don’t sound local, they don’t stick around for long,” she explained. The songs that birds learn may also be indicative of the kind of childhood they had during their first year. Healthier, young birds tend to do better at learning to sing [7] and may have a better chance of holding their territory and starting a family. Some young birds have even been observed taking over adult territories!

"I have told more than one person about the stud song sparrow with 10 songs and the loser with 6. AND that the ladies love a local man. Everyone is fascinated." - Jennifer Jolly Clair

Drawing Inspiration from the Art of Joan Miro

Martinez discussing techniques behind Miro's art.
Martinez discussing techniques behind Miro's art.

Marielena Martinez, MFA, tied the evening together with an exploration of the Spanish artist Joan Miro and his avant-garde abstract art. Miro took inspiration from other great artists before him, such as Picasso, Van Gogh, and Cezanne. Yet his art was influenced by his homeland, Catalonia, and the political tension behind the Spanish Civil War. He was also a sculptor which may have influenced his use of shapes. As his art evolved he contributed to and inspired some of the great art movements of the 1900’s including surrealism, fauvism, and cubism. Miro’s late surrealist methods, for which he is most well known, were highly influenced by dream imagery and psychic automatism, allowing the unconscious mind to dictate the artwork.

"I try to apply colors like words that shape poems, like notes that shape music.” - Joan Miro

Turning Sounds into Symbols to Create Abstract Art

Martinez guided participants through a process of turning sounds into a series of symbols to capture the imagery elicited by a soundscape. Using an audio clip selected from one of Hughes’ Carolina morning soundscapes, the audience was asked to “draw the shapes that you hear” in the bird song. The shapes were unique to each person’s interpretation of the sounds, with a cheatsheet of Miro symbols nearby to aid in the process. By tuning into the songbird sounds and channeling the emotions it stirred, participants created beautiful abstract artwork which showed their own interpretations to the "song." Using markers, crayons, pens, colored pencils, and watercolors each person uniquely transformed sound into visual experiences.

Miro and songbird inspired art created by Cultivate SciArt participants.

Building Science + Art + Community Connections

As people were wrapping up their "abstract soundscapes," Jennifer Tyrrell of Audubon South Carolina shared helpful tips on native plants for backyard bird watching and to foster urban wildlife sanctuaries. Everyone was excited to take home native perennial seeds to plant for birds. And we found out Audubon also has a link to search for native plants for birds by zip code! I was excited to see that a pretty "weed" I've been letting grow, American Beauty-Berry, was a bird favorite. Find out what "garden volunteers" you should let live.

Mid-stream of Tyrrell's tips to better advocate for birds, the room enjoyed a joyful break to celebrate Kabuzz's 6th birthday. He and his friends from The Pink House, a West Ashley neighborhood resource center, are another awesome group of community partners excited to cultivate science and art in their neighborhoods. We love having them join us, especially when they bring birthday cake to share with everyone!

To wrap the evening up, the audience enjoyed hearing about Audubon's policy initiatives to advocate for clean energy alternatives and climate change action in effort to curb the leading causes of the ~30% decline in North American bird populations since 1970. The evening closed with hugs, smiles, pictures of everyone's art and inspiration to pass along the new knowledge gained.


How to Make Songbird Soundscapes into Abstract Art

50 Bird Species and the Sounds They Make

1. Choose a birdsong that you want to turn into visual art. You can find recordings by clicking on the image link to the right OR exploring OR use the Carolina morning birds clip we selected for the event. Download here the powerpoint slide in order to play the looped audio on your computer (note audio does not work directly in google slides).

Symbols of Joan Miro
Symbols of Joan Miro

2. Grab a piece of scrap paper and listen carefully to the birdsong, translating the sounds you hear into symbols. You can design your own or draw inspiration from some of the shapes used by Joan Miro. Think about the different pitches and rhythm that you hear and pattern your symbols to convey those sounds.

3. Next you will transfer your drawing to a new piece of paper and add colors to capture the emotion and imagery of the bird(s).

Suggested materials include:

-permanent markers



-watercolor or other thick paper

Draw the symbols in marker or crayon. Be sure to use thick lines and well colored in shapes to make them pop. You can then paint watercolors over the symbols and they will show through. If you do not have watercolors, you could use light rubbings of your crayons or colored pencils to add background color to add visual impact to your art. And be sure to have fun and express yourself and the unique ways you envision the world and it's beautiful creatures!

Want a live step-by-step guide from Cultivate SciArt's art leader?

5. Be sure to hang your art or gift it to a loved one. (Pro-Tip: Mat your final picture by mounting it on a black or colored piece of paper that gives it a one to two inch border and makes your image stand out.) And please share photos of your art with us via email, Facebook and Instagram using #CultivateScienceArt. And submit it to be part of the #EarthDayArtChallenge.


Learn More About "BOOF, the bird who did everything wrong"


** Get Involved! Birding Citizen Science **

April is Citizen Science Month, but it is also a year round activity...

Citizen Science: Be Part of Something Bigger with Cornell Lab of Ornithology

-> Learn about year-round and once-a-year citizen science bird counts and other activities.

-> Here are some April 2020 citizen science challenges and other actions to help birds.

-> More info from Cornell Ornithology Lab on citizen science projects, FAQ and blogs.

-> Learn more about eBird - Crowdsourcing Bird Data.

-> Info on US Fish & Wildlife Service bird citizen science links.

Find a favorite citizen science app or have a question? Don't forget you can join our blog community and share it here. Dr. Melissa Hughes with College of Charleston, Jennifer Tyrrell with Audubon South Carolina, and Marielena Martinez, Cultivate SciArt Art Director, are all excited to help answer your questions. And if we don't know the answer, we will help find it out.


Don't freak out by the global pandemic and social distancing...

Birding Is the Perfect Activity While Practicing Social Distancing

And there are resources out there to help you learn more about birds, their songs and best techniques for observing and identifying.

The Cornell Lab Online Guide to Birds and Bird Watching

All About Birds - Online Guide to Birds and Bird Watching

"What's This Bird?" is a Facebook group where you can post, get help with bird identification and hear from other bird lovers.

Facebook Group - What's This Bird?

Learn More About Surrealist Automatism

"How To Become A Surrealist - A Manual to Psychic Automatism"

"The ‘true functioning of thought’ was in other words a way how our minds work, how we make different associations and how our subconscious shapes us."

Be sure to check out ALL the event pics, art & reflections in our Google photo album or on Facebook to tag, comment, like and share...

**** Join Our Blog Community! ****

Become a member to add comments, updates and ask questions to the scientists, speakers and artists. Members may also request copies of presentation slides, add photos and much more! Join and help CULTIVATE Science + Art + Community, because it takes a village to grow and make change.

Contributors: Elena Mpougas, Kea Payton, Bobbie Lyon



[1] Dooling, RJ & Prior, NH. 2017. "Do we hear what birds hear in birdsong?" Animal Behaviour 124:283-289.

[2] Hughes, M, Anderson, RC, Searcy, WA, Bottensek, LM & Nowicki, S. 2007. "Song type sharing and territory tenure in eastern song sparrows: implications for the evolution of song repertoires." Animal Behaviour 73:701-710.

[3] Nowicki, S, Searcy, WA & Hughes, M. 1998. "The territory defense function of song in song sparrows: a test with the speaker occupation design." Behaviour 135:615-628.

[4] Searcy, WA, Nowicki, S, Hughes, M & Peters, S. 2002. "Geographic song discrimination in relation to dispersal distances in song sparrows." American Naturalist 159:221-230.

[5] Hyman, J & Hughes, M. 2006. "Territory owners discriminate between aggressive and nonaggressive neighbors." Animal Behaviour 72:209-215.

[6] Marler, P & Peters, S. 1987. "A sensitive period for song acquisition in the song sparrow, Melospiza melodia: a case of age-limited learning." Ethology 76:89-100.

[7] Nowicki, S, Searcy, WA, Peters, S. 2002. 'Brain development, song learning and mate choice in birds: a review and experimental test of the 'nutritional stress hypothesis'." Journal of Comparative Physiology A 188:1003-1014.

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