Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

184 posts categorized "Wildlife sounds"

30 October 2023

Recording of the week: Things that go howl in the night

Illustration of a gray wolf, 1912
public domain

With Halloween creeping up on us, I asked our wildlife curator to share with me her favourite spooky sounds. I’ve heard screeching barn owls. Hissing rattlesnakes. My favourite though: the chorus of howling wolves, recorded in Ontario, Canada in 2000.  

Listen to howls of the Gray Wolf

There’s something both serene and terrifying about the howl of a wolf. The wail floats on the edge of liminality: being both from the human world, yet also otherworldly. The calls mesmerise you – drawing you in, whilst making you want to retreat at the same time. They’re the epitome of the sublime.  

On this recording, I particularly liked how bird song is seamlessly dispersed among the howling at the beginning. You can almost picture dusk falling over the forest with the last birds of the day fleeing, before the creatures of the night ascend their sylvan thrones.  It conjures up that cinematic image of a majestic wolf pack in silhouette against a full moon. Contrary to popular imagination though, our wildlife expert informs me that it’s pure myth that wolves howl at the moon!  

As foreboding as the howls may be to the human ear, for the wolves, they’re a chorus of unity as they call out to their fellow pack-mates to prepare for their nocturnal hunt. Even the pups can be heard with their squeaky howls joining in with their parents.  

You can listen to a longer version of this recording on our sounds website

This week’s recording of the week was chosen by Elliot Sinclair, Web Editor.  

15 August 2023

'Breathe in, Breathe out' - a soundscape

Experience a new sound installation, 'Breathe in, Breathe out', in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library. The project looks at the positive effects of sound on well-being and relaxation. It is the first in a series of new initiatives in the Treasures Gallery, exploring innovative ways of working and engaging with diverse audiences. It runs until Sunday, 26 November 2023. The gallery is free to enter.

We have installed an open-walled structure with dimmed lighting and comfy seating, which provides a cosy space for visitors to relax and unwind. A calming, dreamlike soundscape plays on an endless loop. The mix blends spoken word, music, wildlife, and environmental sounds. All the sounds are drawn from the Library's collection.

A visitor looks at the 'Breathe in  Breathe out' tracklist. Photo by Simon Leach Design

A visitor looks at the 'Breathe in, Breathe out' tracklist—photo by Simon Leach Design. 

Relaxation starts with conscious breathing. The title 'Breathe in, Breathe out' encourages listeners to take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. Nature sounds transport us to peaceful places, offering tranquillity amidst daily distractions. Dreams and dreamscapes also feature, highlighting the importance of rest and recovery. Research shows that we activate different parts of the brain when we listen to music. The impact of sound on our bodies is significant, particularly when it comes to our emotions, memories, and movement. It influences our breathing, heart rate, and mood.

The soundscape is mixed for 8-channel playback, creating an immersive surround-sound experience. The mix juxtaposes calming sounds with hints of suspense. Key elements include 'Jetsun Mila' by Éliane Radigue, inspired by the 11th-century Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa. There are poems by Langston Hughes, W. S. Graham, and Caroline Bergvall. The music covers a broad spectrum of gentle tones, including the delicate notes of water bowls performed by Tomoko Sauvage and the eerie sounds of 'Iká' by Skull Mask, played by Gosha Shtasel, who created the mix and is one of the British Library's sound engineers. You can explore the entire tracklist on one of the display walls.

Two women fill out feedback forms at the 'Breathe In  Breathe Out' sound installation desk. Photo by Eva del Rey

Two women fill out feedback forms—photo by Eva del Rey.

Curating this mix has been an enjoyable experience, as sound and well-being are topics of particular interest to me. We wanted to provide a serene space for visitors to pause and recharge. We also sought to improve how sound is showcased in the Treasures Gallery, pushing the limits of our traditional displays. Surround sound offers an immersive sensory journey that has transformed the gallery space. Listening together cultivates a sense of relaxation, and connection, enhancing our general well-being. Each listener brings their unique perspective and emotions, yet we find common ground in the soothing embrace of sound.

Feedback is encouraged. Responses so far tell us that listeners feel captivated, as if they were part of a movie, with most finding it soothing and some even finding it stirring. It is an effortless and refreshing experience. The display highlights the power of sound to create a peaceful escape and a transformative experience for all who engage with it.

The British Library holds over 6.5 million recordings, ranging from spoken word to music, wildlife and environmental sounds. You can learn more about our sound collections on our Sounds subject web page and at British Library Sounds online

This post was written by Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings.

26 June 2023

Recording of the week: Death's-head hawk-moth (Acherontia Atropos)

Elizabeth Anne Kemp watercolour

Lifecycle of the Death’s-head hawk-moth in Elizabeth Anne Kemp, Drawings and watercolours of English insects. 1803–25. Add Ms 17696-17698.

On Monday 22 May, I was listening to BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week. It was on ‘birds and moths’ and featured the British Library’s very own Wildlife and Environmental Sound curator, Cheryl Tipp, making an inspiring representation of the Library’s Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition. She talked about the importance of sound as documentation of the natural world, making it possible, for example, for now extinct species to live on.

Alongside Cheryl on the programme, was Tim Blackburn, an ecologist specialising on the world of moths. He’s author of the forthcoming (June 2023) The Jewel Box: How moths illuminate nature’s hidden rules (Orion Publishing Co.). His ‘jewel box’ is a moth trap he puts out on his roof terrace in London. He can find more than 20 different moth species in the box with the right conditions. (He lets them go once he has documented them.)

Listening to these two contributors led me to think about what the jewel box might sound like. Apart from perhaps audible flapping of wings of the larger moths, what noises to moths make? I went exploring on the Library’s new Sounds website and found this, recorded in 1955 by English folk music collector, Russell Wortley:

Recording of a death's-head hawk-moth

The death’s-head hawk-moth is the largest moth to be found in the UK, with a wing-span of c.13cm. It gets its name from the rather sinister pattern on its thorax resembling a human skull. It can also be singled out by its ability to squeak when it becomes alarmed. 

Visitors can see Elizabeth Anne Kemp’s watercolour in the exhibition.

Today’s post was written by Janet Topp Fargion, Head of Sound & Vision.

05 June 2023

Recording of the week: Seabirds in a plastic world

Northern Gannet with plastic

A northern gannet, a seabird with a white body, beige head and blue eyes, sits on a pile of blue and red fishing rope and holds a clump of it in its beak. Photo credit: Thomas Haeusler. 

Today is World Environment Day 2023. This year, it is hosted by Côte d'Ivoire, and the theme is focussing on tackling plastic pollution. By now, we should all be aware of the dangers around plastics entering the environment. The 2017 series Blue Planet II, brought our attention to the plight of our oceans due to the amount of plastic being introduced. We saw disturbing footage of albatross chicks perishing after being fed small pieces of sharp plastic. Since then, hard hitting assessments have regularly been in the headlines like “more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050”, “humans ingest the equivalent of a credit card worth of plastic every week”, and “microplastics found in human blood”. World Environment Day in 2018 also had the same theme and tagline: “Beat Plastic Pollution”. Yet despite this awareness, frustratingly little progress has been made in reducing plastic production and consumption. Worse still, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in plastic waste in the form of PPE.

Plastic affects all life on all parts of the planet, but some more than others. This recording of the week selection (British Library reference WA 1999/058/075 S1 C1) comes from a group of animals especially affected by human actions; seabirds. The northern gannet (Morus bassanus) is an iconic seabird, famous for their incredible fishing technique. As seen in the recent Wild Isles series, gannets catch their food by diving at high speed in to schools of fish, leaving trails of bubbles in their path like avian torpedoes.

Like most seabirds, gannets nest on cliff sides in large and often very noisy colonies, typically alongside other species such as kittiwakes, fulmars and guillemots. As such, getting a clean recording of an individual calling can be very challenging. The recordist responsible for this recording, Victor Lewis, used a long cable and careful field-craft to get his microphone as close as possible to the subject with minimal disturbance. The raucous calls of a pair at the nest is easily lost to our ears in the cacophony of other bird calls and sea sounds, but this is how they communicate with one another, so to hear it from the birds’ perspective gives better context to the sounds.

Listen to Gannets calling

Gannets courting

A pair of northern gannets face each other with their necks extended and beaks touching. Photo credit: Marco Federmann.

Gannets mate for life, and they have a unique mating ritual which they perform each season to re-affirm their bonds. They face each other, extend their necks, touch bills and shake their heads. If you are lucky enough to see this display when watching a colony, you may just hear the subtle clattering of their bills.

Over half the world’s gannets nest around the UK coast, estimated at around 220,000 pairs. That sounds like a healthy number, but it is declining due to a complex array of man-made problems. Overfishing depletes their food source and even ends with gannets caught in trawler nets as bycatch. Bird flu has been devastating to gannets in recent years, spreading through colonies very quickly and leaving thousands of dead chicks and adults. While plastic continues to be a terrible threat. In 2019, the scientists in the British Ornithologists’ Union studied 7280 gannet nests across 29 colonies, and found 46% contained plastic. A gannet colony on the island of Alderney was found by the Wildlife Trust to contain plastic in almost every single nest. Most of this is in the form of fishing gear lost or abandoned at sea. Chicks and adults can get entangled in fishing ropes or even end up ingesting plastic, and this is often fatal.

Every year people visit seabird sites like Bempton Cliffs, the Farne Islands, and Bass Rock in Scotland to marvel at the spectacle of thousands of birds breeding and feeding on the UK shores. To lose this annual festival of nature would be so devastating it doesn’t bare thinking about. As well as addressing other threats, we must stop plastic entering the ocean. Large scale solutions like new laws and legislation must come from higher up, but, in case you need a reminder, we can all play our part. Be mindful of what you are buying and throwing away. If you can afford to, always choose reusable alternatives to single-use plastics. You can also do a lot of good by helping to clean up your local spaces or joining in with a beach clean. The future lives of these beautiful birds, like so many other species, depends on all of our actions now.

Northern Gannets on rock

Several dozen Northern Gannets and their chicks sat at the top of a cliff with the sea in the background. Photo credit: Dr. Georg Wietschorke .

You can learn all about humans’ understanding and interpretation of animals in our exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound, open until 28th August 2023.

Today’s post was written by Greg Green, Metadata Support Officer.

24 May 2023

Animals: Art, Science and Sound

Animals: Art, Science and Sound is the first major exhibition to explore the many different ways in which animals have been written about, visualised and recorded over time. Focusing on the British Library’s extensive natural history collections, the exhibition brings together chronologically and geographically diverse material produced over the past 2000 years, from some of the earliest encyclopaedic works on zoology to stunning high-resolution photographs of insects produced using the latest technologies.

Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition poster

The exhibition features over 100 objects selected from the Library's diverse collections and is divided into four main zones that cover darkness, water, land and air. As the name suggests, sound features heavily in the exhibition, both in terms of physical objects and sound recordings themselves. There are soundscapes playing in the gallery space that help create atmosphere and listening points where visitors can explore some of the more weird and wonderful recordings held by the Library. Published discs, field tapes, recording equipment and personal notebooks sit alongside historical manuscripts, paintings and printed works, and many of these items are on display for the very first time. There are objects of celebration, such as the first commercial record of an animal, but also objects of sadness, the most poignant of which is a reel of tape containing the song of a now extinct songbird.

Below are just a few highlights from this textually, visually and sonically rich exhibition.

Holgate Mark VI portable bat detector

The Holgate Mark VI bat detector which was one of the earliest portable models produced (British Library, WA 2009/018)

Greater Horseshoe Bat echolocation recorded using the Holgate MK VI by John Hooper in Devon, England, 1968 (WS7360 C10)

Colour painting of a horse surrounded by annotations describing its bad points

Illustration of the defects of a horse from Kitab al-baytarah (Book on Veterinary Medicine) by Abu Muhammad Ahmad ibn Atiq al-Azdi, 13th century (British Library, Or 1523, ff. 62v-63r)

Page showing examples of musical notation being used to represent the songs and calls of European birds

Musical notation used to represent the songs and calls of birds, from Athanasius Kircher's Musurgia Universalis (Universal Music), Rome, 1650 (British Library, 59.e.19.) 

Front cover of the 2nd edition of Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch's sound book Animal Language

Second edition of Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch's Animal Language sound bookUSA, 1964 (British Library, 1SS0001840)

Bactrian Camel calls taken from disc 1 of Animal Language (1CS0070755)

Coloured woodcut illustration of a monkfish from Pierre Belon's De Aquatilibus

An image of a 'monkfish' from Pierre Belon's De aquatilibus (Of aquatic species), Paris, 1553 (British Library, 446.a.6.)

Colour illustration of a fruit bat

An illustration of a fruit bat, painted at Barrackpore, India. 1804-7 (British Library, NHD3/517)

Childrens education record featuring a disc surrounded by a cardboard illustration of hippos

The Hip-po-pot-a-mus children's educational record published by the Talking Book Corporation, USA, 1919 (British Library, 9CS0029512)

Animals  Art Science and Sound at the British Library 4 small

A section in the Land zone displaying textual and visual accounts of animals appearing in countries beyond their usual geographic range.

Animals_marketing_shoot_17_04_2022_024 bird voices small

A section in the Air zone exploring the history of recording bird voices including the first commercially released record of an animal from 1910.

Actual Bird Record Made by a Captive Nightingale (No.1), Gramophone Company, 1910

Animals: Art, Science and Sound runs until 28 August 2023. Please visit to book tickets and to find out more about the exhibition's accompanying events programme. Thanks go to the Getty Foundation, Ponant, the American Trust for the British Library and the B.H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library. Audio soundscapes were created by Greg Green with support from the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and scientific advice provided by ZSL (the Zoological Society of London). 


29 March 2023

Wings aren’t just for flying

The mechanics behind bird flight have fascinated and inspired humans for centuries. From Leonardo da Vinci to the Wright Brothers, this seemingly effortless process has captivated and influenced some of the finest scientific and engineering minds in history.

Wings aren’t just for flying though. For some species, wings are also an integral part of courtship displays. The White-collared Manakin (Manacus candei) is just one example of a bird that uses its wings for more than just getting around. The mating dance of this colourful neotropical songbird includes a series of crisp wing snaps and buzzes produced by males as they flit between branches around the edge of their designated display arena. These birds are particularly finicky when it comes to selecting and preparing their personal dance floors. First, their chosen patch of forest has to be free from foliage; nobody wants to be smacked in the face by bushes when trying to impress a potential mate. Any leaf litter, twigs or other unwanted objects are then collected and moved out of the way, leaving a bare square of forest floor. When the dance-off finally gets underway, females in the area carefully watch the performances. If a female is impressed by a particular male, she will join his dance, following him as he moves between branches. Though appearing quite romantic on the surface, pair bonds are not formed after the mating display and males play no part in nest building, egg incubation or the rearing of young.  

This recording of a White-collared Manakin was made in Costa Rica’s La Selva Biological Reserve on 13 March 1986 by Richard Ranft (see full catalogue record).

White-collared Manakin wing snaps and buzzes

White-collared Manakin perched on a branch in a tropical forest
White-collared Manakin (photo credit: Mick Thompson on Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0)

The wing snaps and buzzes produced by the male are clearly audible, though the bird itself was hidden from the recordist's view by the dense forest foliage. Several other species of manakin also incorporate wing snaps into their courtship rituals, a trait inherited from a distant common ancestor that, luckily for sound recordists, has stuck around.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

20 February 2023

Recording of the week: A warbler singing in the predawn

This week’s post comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

The Marsh Warbler (Acrocephalus palustris) is best known for its remarkable ability to imitate the songs and calls of other species. Its spirited song can contain, on average, imitations of over 70 different species, encountered in both its Eurasian breeding grounds and the densely vegetated areas of southeastern Africa where it spends the winter months.  The male in this recording is in fine voice, producing a rich, varied song that takes centre stage in this nocturnal atmosphere (British Library reference WA 2007/017/001/019).

Listen to Marsh Warbler singing in the predawn

Photo of a marsh warbler perched among reeds. Photo by Stefan Berndtsson

Photo credit: Stefan Berndtsson on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

The recording was made by Ian Christopher Todd in May 2005 during a recording trip to Hungary. The Marsh Warbler, a summer visitor to the country, was encountered in the valley of Bükkzsérc, situated along the southern border of Hungary’s Bükk National Park. In 2018 the recording was included in a 60 minute wildlife and environmental mix on NTS Radio, British Library Sound Archive – At the Water’s Edge.

18 January 2023

Why do hammer-headed fruit bats honk?

The Hammer-headed Fruit Bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus) is the largest of the African bats. Named for its unusual appearance, this species is a classic example of sexual dimorphism at work, with males and females displaying significant differences in both size and appearance. While females are smaller and possess the familiar fruit bat face that usually generates a stream of ‘awwww!’ comments on YouTube, males elicit a completely different response. Their large mallet-like faces, flaring nostrils, flappy lips and bulging eyes, teamed with a huge wingspan of up to a metre, undoubtedly influenced the selection of ‘monstrosus’ when zoologists named the species in the 19th century.

The first scientific description of the Hammer-headed Fruit Bat was published in 1861 in volume 13 of the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The article’s author, the American physician and anatomist Dr. Harrison Allen, provided a highly detailed breakdown of the bat’s anatomy, including everything from dental records to the stiffness of its fur. The specimen studied by Allen had been collected by the French-American explorer Paul Du Chaillu who had been sent on an expedition to Africa by the academy in 1855. A second description was published in 1862 in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, written by the Scottish naturalist and lawyer Andrew Murray. Murray only received a copy of Allen’s description after his own paper had gone to print (the journal had taken 7 months to arrive in the UK). In the postscript, Murray noted that if both were describing and naming the same species, Allen’s name of Hypsignathus monstrosus must take precedence (the name the species carries today). Their descriptions varied slightly, however Murray assumed this was due to differences in the preserved specimens being examined; Murray believed Allen was working from a dried skin whereas he had access to a specimen preserved in spirits. This enabled Murray to include a detailed illustration of the species alongside his written description.

Black and white illustration of a Hammer-headed Fruit Bat, taken from the 1862 edition of Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London

Being able to observe living individuals in their natural habitat was the next step. Field studies conducted in the 20th century revealed a surprising aspect of the bat's behaviour. During the breeding season, males were seen to congregate at dusk for an evening of intense vocal competition. A chorus of loud, monotonous honking would fill the night air as males used their calls as a way to prove their genetic fitness to nearby females looking for a mate. This recent recording of a Hammer-headed Fruit Bat lek includes the characteristic honking and was made by Michael Mills in Kumbira Forest, Angola on the 8th September 2013 (British Library reference WA 2014/001/001/431).

Hammer-headed Fruit Bat

An extremely long larynx, measuring half the length of its body cavity, is what allows males to take part in such sustained sonic battling. This gathering of displaying males in an arena-like setting, known as lek behaviour, is more commonly seen in birds. Though the mating system is also seen in mammals, only a handful of bats are known to use this process. Scientists continue to uncover previously unknown aspects of bat behaviour and so more species could be added to this list in the future. Our journey to fully understanding this complex and diverse group of mammals is far from over.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

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