Culture

Listen: This Birdsong Time Machine Resurrects the Lost Sounds of New York

An ecologist, a sound engineer, and a multimedia artist teamed up to recreate forgotten soundscapes of the city's past wildlife.

Today’s Manhattan soundtrack can be loud and grating: angry drivers honking, trucks barreling down the street, busy urbanites chatting loudly on their phones—and, yes, maybe some sparrows or pigeons squabbling amongst themselves.

But in 1609, just before Europeans arrived on the island, Manhattan and its birds would have sounded entirely different. Many of the North American species that are so familiar to urbanites today, like Mallard Ducks, Northern Cardinals, and Canada Geese, would have been rare visitors to the island. There wouldn't have been a single starling in sight.

Now, a new virtual reality project helps you imagine the sights and sounds of New York before it was a grand metropolis (and a playground for pigeons). The project, spearheaded by multimedia artist David Al-Ibrahim, is known as “Calling Thunder.” It was unveiled to the public last month on YouTube and Vimeo.

For the debut, Al-Ibrahim and his team recreated the early 17th-century ambience of four locations scattered across the island. Each experience is a two-minute-long video that begins in the present day; as modernity slips away, the past takes hold of eyes and ears alike. To acknowledge how little we know about how these places might have looked, Al-Ibrahim favors abstract visuals, with white sketches of tree trunks and streams on a black background. But the soundscapes embrace detail, painting a scene of pre-colonization ecology.

The simulations are based on historic ecosystem and species reconstructions that were first published in the 2009 book Mannahatta by ecologist Eric Sanderson. Since then, Sanderson and his colleagues are continuing to sharpen them through work done with the Welikia project, named for the term for “my good home” in the indigenous Lenape language. The digital project combines historical research with a scientific understanding of how species interact, resulting in projections of ancient ecosystems featuring everything from geology to avifauna. The end-goal is to recreate the past ecology of every block in the five boroughs.

To turn those species maps into soundscapes, the team enlisted Bill McQuay, an audio producer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. Sound is a powerful tool for exploring places—or times—we’ve never visited, McQuay says, because we’re evolutionarily wired to respond to it; indeed, it's the only sense that keeps working while we sleep. “Our environment is as much about what we hear as what we see,” he says.

McQuay’s process was simple: He selected about a dozen species for each location that fit the time period and are also represented by high-quality recordings in the audio library. (This ruled out birds that have gone extinct since the 1600s like the Passenger Pigeon, the Heath Hen, and the Labrador Duck.) He wanted to portray a typical day in each spot, so he limited his options to species that had at least a 50 percent chance of being found there, according to Welikia. Then McQuay started placing those sounds in the appropriate habitats and manipulating characteristics, like their volume and distance from the ear, to reflect how they would have reverberated across the landscape.

As a result, Inwood Hill Park on the northern end of Manhattan features Green Herons and Semipalmated Sandpipers; the American Museum of Natural History skirting Central Park stars Northern Flickers and Pileated Woodpeckers; the High Line along the Hudson River yields Osprey and Ring-billed Gulls; and Collect Pond, the downtown site of the city’s former freshwater source, pairs a Baltimore Oriole with an American Crow.

Birds dominate most of the soundscapes, but they’re sometimes supplemented by other noisy creatures such as katydids and frogs. Humans aren’t currently included in the audio mix, even though between 300 and 600 Lenape people lived on the island when Dutch explorers arrived. (Inwood Hill Park was a major fishing and foraging site for the tribes.) Their exclusion has a technical explanation: The team isn't confident that they can accurately recreate those sounds.

Eventually the team wants to expand the project to more locations and species, and develop more complex audio features like seasonal or night-to-day changes. For now, you can try out their aural recreations of the four Manhattan locations even without a VR headset. If you’d like to use a smartphone, download the YouTube app, then open the “Calling Thunder” playlist and move your phone to navigate around in the 3-D space. You can add a viewing case like Google Cardboard to make it a true virtual experience. You can also watch the videos on a computer using a 360-enabled browser like Chrome, which will let you click and drag to twist the view.

Whichever technology you choose, the experience will whisk you back to the days when New York's tallest skyscrapers were trees and the only tourists were flocks of migrating birds.

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