In November 2020, during a contested election and deadly pandemic, a tiny Saw-whet Owl was rescued from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Being very small (and politically unaffiliated), the owl spawned a minor media sensation. Among those entranced was New York-based music producer So Wylie.
At the time, Wylie didn’t think much about birds in her day-to-day life, but she’d always had a soft spot for owls. She Googled the bird and listened to its rhythmic, musical call. “I was like, this is kind of fire!” she says. “I immediately decided I was going to make a beat with it. I made it that afternoon.”
She composed a minute-long beat and posted a video of it on TikTok, thinking of it as a fun one-off project. But the online response was so enthusiastic that Wylie has kept at it. Now, her bird beat videos—featuring avian stars such as the Barred Owl, Hermit Thrush, and Common Potoo—have garnered an enthusiastic and growing fan base of birders.
Wylie works at Spotify’s Gimlet Media as a sound engineer for podcasts such as Dissect and Crime Show, and as a producer for artists like Camille Trust. But she’s also an active composer influenced by producers and artists who mix genres freely, including Timbaland, OutKast, and The Gorillaz. When you get down to it, she says, bird calls are like any other sample: “The first thing I’ll think of is like: What tempo does this suggest? I’ll see if any specific chords or key comes to mind, and I’ll start building [a beat] based on that.”
Wylie had stumbled into the art of making music from recorded birdsong. It’s an expansive genre: In 1960, CBS Musical Director Jim Fassett cut together ornithological field recordings to release the experimental and eerie Symphony of the Birds. Wylie’s contemporaries include: British musician Cosmo Shelldrake who has also explored blending recorded bird calls into instrumental compositions in Wake Up Calls, through sly and soothing tracks that use the voices of threatened British birds to follow the passage of time; acoustic ecologist Ben Mirin, who releases under the name “DJ Ecotone" and whose work is funky and intricate, with beatboxing that weaves around the birdsong; and Indian music teacher A. J. Mithra, who composes synthy tracks drawing on the fauna of the subcontinent.
Wylie’s bird beats tend to be smooth, distilled, and catchy—supporting the bird’s vocals without distorting them. But the videos are also compelling in their tangible joy and playfulness. Each begins with Wylie on her couch, playing a bird call. Her face wrinkles in surprise or delight at the sound; shots follow of her composing at her keyboard, and of waveforms of the bird call on audio programs, the call repeating rhythmically over the action. Finally, the beat drops, with clips of the bird intercut with Wylie bopping along to her latest creation. She deliberately structures the videos to evoke the feeling of creative discovery: Part of the fun is seeing how Wylie reacts to the challenge of whatever bird gets thrown at her.
Many of the birds Wylie has sampled so far have been owls, including the Eastern Screech-Owl, Boreal Owl, and Barn Owl, whose otherworldly hiss proved tricky. She’s also been fielding suggestions from listeners. “The Eastern Whip-poor-will hive is very strong,” Wylie says, laughing. “Also the Canyon Wren—a lot of people have been very excited about that one. There are so many birds that this could technically keep going forever, so I’m just choosing whichever comes next.” (Edit note: Wylie released the Canyon Wren just the other day. A review from Audubon's #birds Slack channel: "This might be my favorite beat yet.")
Wylie has been stunned by the reaction to the videos on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram Live. “The birding community was so much more powerful than I had originally realized,” Wylie says. And while she’s been wary about taking up space in an online community she’s still new to, she’s found the feedback touching. “It’s just brought me so much joy on such an otherwise very dark and tough year, and it’s just like something I’ll never forget.”
She’s also become more interested in going birding herself, once it’s safer to do so with others. “I’m going to have to creep back into social life, obviously,” she says. “ But I know where to go and who to call if I want to go see some birds now. ”
Wylie is toying with plans to extend her minute-long video bird beats into an album, but that would be a long-term project; there’s also the matter of legally clearing the bird samples she uses, many of which come from institutions like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But if she does end up selling her work, any proceeds will be donated back into birding organizations, she says.
“This is not something I ever expected to happen,” Wylie says. “And so all of the positivity that’s been given to me through this, I want to bring that positivity back.”
Update: Watch a bonus track with Audubon's own Dominic Arenas rapping to So Wylie's beat.