Illustration: Scott Partridge

When 33-year-old Robin Perkins thinks of childhood family holidays, he remembers looking for Great Bustards on the plains of Spain or seeking sights of Peregrine Falcons near his hometown of Glossop, England. Birding was often a goal for family vacations—his mother volunteered and then worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Today, like his mom, he is doing his own work to protect birds, but through less traditional means: electronic music. He's coordinated the production of two birdsong-centered albums roughly modeled after the concept of typical avian field guides, 2015's A Guide to the Birdsong of South America, and the recent release, A Guide to the Birdsong of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. All profits go to conservation work that protects endangered or threatened bird species. “Electronic music and popular music have the power to reach a lot of people in a way that organizations or charities or NGOs can't,” he says.

Perkins first got into the electronic music scene while living in Buenos Aires during a master's program in Latin American Studies. The Argentina capital hosted a movement of artists taking organic, natural sounds—including birdsong—and blending them into compositions that could get revelers dancing. Around 2012, while working for Greenpeace in Amsterdam, he took on an artistic moniker, El Búho, Spanish for owl, and created an EP in which each track incorporated a specific bird’s song. He chose five birds, including the Tropical Screech-Owl, for the particular sonic qualities their calls and songs brought to the compositions.

Up until then, much of his DJing and producing had been designed for dance clubs. However, Perkins began to wonder if electronic music could also carry a message that combined his musical and eco-activist worlds. Pondering the longtime historical link between birds and humans, as well as the natural affinities between birdsong and human music, he developed his project with an aim to raise awareness about the plight of threatend birds in South America. 

Robin Perkins. Photo: Lizett Diaz

Creating the albums was a bit like putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle. First, Perkins had to select the birds. His initial filter was the IUCN Red List, an online database of endangered species. From there, he developed a shortlist of birds that are threatened, endangered, or critically endangered, such as Ecuador’s Jocotoco Antipitta and Argentina’s Saffron-Cowled Blackbird. To find the samples of the bird’s song that electronic composers could incorporate, Perkins discovered the Xeno Canto community, a forum of birdsong recording enthusiasts from around the world. For the second volume in 2020, he also worked with Cornell University's McCauley Library.

While doing research for the first album, Perkins put together a short list of artists from the birds’ homelands, selecting producers whose musical vision was centered on exploring the traditional music of their own countries and mixing it with electronic elements. He paired the musicians with birds and invited them to compose pieces using the birdsong.

Perkins also contacted conservation organizations in search of concrete, practical projects that the albums could support. For the first volume, his partner was Ecuador’s Fundacion Jocotoco. The album resulted in an initial $6,464 for the foundation’s work in the Tapichalaca Reserve, part of the Reservas del Sur, and the last home to the critically endangered Jocotoco Antpitta. To protect the declining Jocotoco, says Reservas del Sur director Byron Puglia, it is crucial to safeguard the wet, mossy forests that are the birds’ home and source of sustenance. The project’s funds allowed the Foundation to pay one year’s salary for a ranger who cared for the species in the preserve. 

The album received attention outside of the bird world, too. A Billboard article said birds on the tracks “sometimes seem to be singing to a cumbia beat. As the first album’s success continued beyond its initial launch, ultimately raising about $15,000, it allowed Perkins to also extend support to the work of Aves Argentinas. This organization spearheads a labor-intensive field project in partnership with the Conservation Biology Lab at Centro de Ecología Aplicada del Litoral (CONICET) aimed at saving the Saffron-cowled Blackbird, whose existence is threatened by predators as well as the loss of grasslands. Project Manager and biologist Florencia Pucheta says the work supported by the first album (approximately $8,000) included aid for youth teams to spend about two months every year in the field to monitor and protect the species’ nests during breeding season. During that period, they built wire enclosures to protect the nests and monitored hatchlings' growth and development.

Saffron-cowled Blackbird fledglings leaving the protected nest. Photo: Proyecto Tordo Amarillo

This year’s follow-up album, released in June, will support the work of three new organizations. In Mexico, Fundación Txori is constructing a new aviary for rescue and rehabilitation of threatened or endangered parrots, whereas in Costa Rica, Aves de Costa Rica will be distributing materials for an educational outreach program to schools and colleges. Finally, support of Birds Caribbean’s Caribbean Birding Trail will bolster the local economic impacts of bird tourism across the region by training guides, educating local communities, and creating materials at reserves.

Beyond the economic impact of his musical birdsong guides, Perkins notes that the albums are providing a model for a burgeoning movement of international DJ/producers who are choosing to embrace electronic music’s activist possibilities. Argentinian DJ Leonardo Martinelli, who goes by the name Tremor and worked with the Yellow Cardinal’s song for his track on volume one, feels the birdsong project was a part of recovering the ancestral perspectives of indigenous peoples, as these seminal birds are also the first inhabitants of the land. And for Buenos Aires’ DJ-Producer Pedro Canale, aka Chancha via Circuito, who composed his piece around the song of Argentina’s Hooded Grebe, the sonic landscapes of electronic music can also bring natural spaces to the listener.

As for Perkins, both projects are all about the lessons that listening to nature affords us. “It's something that we've forgotten to do, and that's part of the reason why a lot of our incredible natural spaces are threatened,” he says. “By listening, it's a reminder that we need to protect them because otherwise these sounds are going to disappear.” Currently living in Paris and and rediscovering birding, he’s already considering the possibilities for the next Guide to Birdsong. “When I set out, my dream was to make it a series of volumes from different regions of the world. We’ll be using crowdfunding to decide where to go next.” Who knows, he muses, “maybe East Asia!”

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