Meadowlark song

The writer Ivan Doig was a keen observer of the natural environment, especially the birds of the West. “None of us spoke while the songs of the birds poured undiluted,” remembers a character in Doig’s novel Ride with Me, Mariah Montana. It was a deference shared by the author, who was an avid birdwatcher.

This summer, the Acoustic Atlas is traveling to some of the places that influenced Doig, and we are capturing recordings of many of his favorite birds. The recordings will become part of the library’s collection of Doig’s papers, now being digitized for presentation online this fall.

“I suppose we were afraid the spate of loveliest sound would vanish if we broke it with so much as a whisper,” Doig wrote in the novel. “But after a bit came the realization that the music of birds formed a natural part of this place, constant as the glorious grass that made feathered life thrive.”

One such constant is the Western meadowlark. We hope you will enjoy this recording of a solitary bird near Ringling, Montana just outside of White Sulphur Springs where Doig spent his early childhood years. (Special thanks to BirdNote for inspiring this blog.)

Ear Mountain

Ear Mountain near Choteau, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.
Ear Mountain near Choteau, Montana. Photo by Jeff Rice.

If ever a place beckoned to a nature recordist, it is Ear Mountain. I had never been there, but saw the name on a map and had to visit.

I happened to be in nearby Choteau, Montana for a project related to the writings of Ivan Doig. This summer, I am tracing some of the locations Doig wrote about in books like This House of Sky and English Creek. The project is supported by the library’s Acoustic Atlas, and over the past month it has taken me from White Sulphur Springs to the Rocky Mountain Front, with a few detours to the northernmost part of western Washington.

Doig, who passed away in 2015, was a leading writer of Western literature. He wrote 16 books of fiction and non-fiction, many of them set in his native Montana. The MSU library is now digitizing and archiving his papers, and even if you don’t know Ivan Doig, you will recognize the country he wrote about.

What draws me personally to Doig’s books is not just his ear for plot and dialogue, but his sense of place. He wrote about what might be described as ‘Doig country’—the windy prairies and forests of central and northern Montana as experienced by its ranchers and early settlers. That’s what I will be documenting through sound, and I’ll blog more about this project as the summer progresses. I’ll follow some of Doig’s characters around the West, and I will use this space as a kind of notebook to share sounds and stories from these trips.

My first stop in this series is the valley below the aforementioned rock near Choteau. It turns out that Ear Mountain lives up to its name. It is a draw for songbirds that are attracted to its transitional habitat. It is the ‘front’ part of the famed Rocky Mountain Front, where the mountain connects to the nearby grasslands. The Ear Mountain Wildlife Management Area where I visited is also a big draw for grizzly bears. It is one of the last places in the world where grizzly bears still venture onto the prairie. At dawn on July 5th, I didn’t see any bears, but the wind settled down enough for the birds to go into full song. Listen in this recording for house wrens and and robins. Don’t forget your bear spray.


Writing Sound: Howling for Leopold Week

Late last Friday, I discovered that the first week in March celebrates Aldo Leopold, the American author, environmentalist, and philosopher. I sat down to explore how the famed conservationist wrote about sound. Yet I found my fingers balking at the keys. My memory circles the personal impact of a man who’s words on wildlife and wildness thread through my own life. Recalling his significance to me, self-doubt persuades that I cannot possibly do justice to one of America’s most renowned ecologists and nature writers.

Then, after a little digging and reflection, I am reminded that Leopold’s land ethic is born of humility. Leopold wrote of the need to humble ourselves before natural systems of complexity and nuance and grace beyond comprehension. It seems fitting to quiet my mind and offer a small homage to an author who put words to our obligations to the majesty that is life on earth.Photo Credit: Jim Peaco/NPS

There is a passage from A Sand County Almanac that fit into my heart from first read and reverberates whenever I have occasion to contemplate the wild. As a young man in the Forest Service in the Southwest, Leopold shot into a pack of wolves:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Leopold’s fierce green fire is a moment of regret and redemption, vulnerability and compassion, kinship and divergence. Throughout his Thinking Like a Mountain essay, the wolf appears as a guide in the evolution of Leopold’s thinking on top predators and ecological systems. And Leopold wrote of listening to Canis lupus as much as observing them visually:

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night.

Audio credit: “Grey Wolves, 8-Mile Pack” NPS/Jennifer Jerrett, hosted by Acoustic Atlas.

Leopold’s descriptions of wolf howls are rooted in the relational; he writes of the auditory experience empathically:

It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

And in solidarity with the community of life:

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet.

And with humility in recognition of the smallness of our stature:

Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

I said that Leopold threads through my life: as a southwestern child amidst the Bring Back the Lobo campaign; as an undergraduate student studying natural resource policy and state wolf management in particular; and as an adult who didn’t so much move to Montana as immigrate to wolf country. Wolves or their absence have always been with me. Perhaps Aldo Leopold’s words resonate with me simply due to exposure – his works experienced a resurgence that neatly overlaps my lifespan. I am sure that I owe my love and curiosity for wolves in no small part to Aldo Leopold. Yet I think he would maintain that he simply put words to a universal connection:

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

In Song of the Gavilan, another essay in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold answers what might be the most important question of all: how do we hear secrets whispered between wolves and mountains? The answer, of course, is to still ourselves and listen:

To hear even a few notes of it you must first live here for a long time, and you must know the speech of hills and rivers. Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it – a vast pulsing harmony – its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries.

It is a tall order to live in Leopold’s landscapes: to immerse ourselves in simple living in an untrammeled place. But we can still look up to the Pleiades:

"Meteor at the Pleiades" by Luis Argerich used in accordance with CC BY-NC 2.0.

And listen to the howl of a wolf:

Audio credit: “Wolf howling, Lamar Valley” NPS/Jennifer Jerrett, hosted by Acoustic Atlas.

And think hard of everything we have seen and tried to understand.

You can listen to more wolf howls via the Acoustic Atlas. You can hear an inspiring vignette about wolves breaking the silence in Yellowstone National Park in Winter Wolves, an audio postcard produced by Yellowstone National Park.

Grey Wolves, 8-Mile Pack” and “Wolves howling, Lamar Valley” public domain audio recorded by NPS/Jennifer Jerrett, hosted by the Acoustic Atlas. “Meteor at the Pleiades” photo credit Luis Argerich used in accordance with Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial License 2.0. “Alpha male (712) of the Canyon pack in the Lower Geyser Basin” photo credit Jim Peaco/NPS.

Writing Sound: Listening to Muir on Yellowstone’s Birthday

Postcard of Old Faithful Geyser; Frank J Haynes; No date
Postcard of Old Faithful Geyser; Frank J Haynes

On the 144th anniversary of the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, I happened upon John Muir’s 1898 entry in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Yellowstone National Park.” Always on the lookout for descriptions of sound, I found a treasure of references to the auditory experience of our first national park.

Muir’s words are as a sermon, inviting a flock of travelers both in body and in imagination to lie down in the “stimulating, quickening pasturage” of the “blessed old Yellowstone Wonderland.” And as voice is inseparable from the idea of a preacher, so too does Muir evoke the awesome voice of a tumultuous and vibrant landscape:

A thousand Yellowstone wonders are calling, “Look up and down and round about you!” And a multitude of still, small voices may be heard directing you to look through all this transient, shifting show of things called “substantial” into the truly substantial, spiritual world whose forms flesh and wood, rock and water, air and sunshine, only veil and conceal, and to learn that here is heaven and the dwelling-place of the angels.

To me, what is striking in this passage is the use of comparative volume to encompass all that Yellowstone invites us to contemplate. The thousands of exclamatory calls bring to mind the breathtaking and frankly terrifying geology of the park. Indeed, Muir’s descriptions of Yellowstone’s geothermal wonders seem to emphasize their awesomeness:

However orderly your excursions or aimless, again and again amid the calmest, stillest scenery you will be brought to a standstill hushed and awe-stricken before phenomena wholly new to you. Boiling springs and huge deep pools of purest green and azure water, thousands of them, are splashing and heaving in these high, cool mountains as if a fierce furnace fire were burning beneath each one of them; and a hundred geysers, white torrents of boiling water and steam, like inverted waterfalls, are ever and anon rushing up out of the hot, black underworld. Some of these ponderous geyser columns are as large as sequoias,—five to sixty feel in diameter, one hundred and fifty to three hundred feet high,—and are sustained at this great height with tremendous energy for a few minutes, or perhaps nearly an hour, standing rigid and erect, hissing, throbbing, booming, as if thunderstorms were raging beneath their roots, their sides roughened or fluted like the furrowed boles of trees, their tops dissolving in feathery branches, while the irised spray, like misty bloom is at times blown aside, revealing the massive shafts shining against a background of pine-covered hills.

Let’s listen Beehive Geyser as it builds to that “hissing, throbbing, booming, as if thunderstorms were raging beneath [its] roots


In another passage, Muir imagines Yellowstone’s cauldrons and mudpots as science experiments in a vast natural laboratory, with “Nature at work as a chemist…cunningly compounding an infinite variety of mineral messes.” Listen, for example, to the “gasping, belching, thudding sounds” of a boiling mud pot, as in this recording of Fountain Paint Pots:


Muir reminds us that the deafening noise of Yellowstone’s wonders serve to quiet us:

there is a chatter of small talk in anything but solemn mood; and during the intervals between the preliminary splashes and upheavals some adventurer occasionally looks down the throat of the crater, admiring the silex formations and wondering whether Hades is as beautiful. But when, with awful uproar as if avalanches were falling and storms thundering in the depths, the tremendous outburst begins, all run away to a safe distance, and look on, awe-stricken and silent, in devout, worshiping wonder.

He employs sound to write the mood of a place that requires “stout faith to feel at ease“:

The ground sounds hollow underfoot, and the awful subterranean thunder shakes one’s mind as the ground is shaken, especially at night in the pale moonlight, or when the sky is overcast with storm-clouds. In the solemn gloom, the geysers, dimly visible, look like monstrous dancing ghosts, and their wild songs and the earthquake thunder replying to the storms overhead seem doubly terrible, as if divine government were at an end.


I have marveled at my being in the world amidst growling thunder. I have thanked a  howling wind that my ego could not stand to face. The ferocity of nature is so often marked by sound: a roaring, rushing, thundering, crashing, thudding, rumbling beat of a wild heart. It’s enough to give one’s own heart pause – and then to resume, realigned to the faith of the world:

But the trembling hills keep their places. The sky clears, the rosy dawn is reassuring, and up comes the sun like a god, pouring his faithful beams across the mountains and forest, lighting each peak and tree and ghastly geyser alike, and shining into the eyes of the reeking springs, clothing them with rainbow light, and dissolving the seeming chaos of darkness into varied forms of harmony. The ordinary work of the world goes on. Gladly we see the flies dancing in the sun-beams, birds feeding their young, squirrels gathering nuts, and hear the blessed ouzel singing confidingly in the shallows of the river,—most faithful evangel, calming every fear, reducing everything to love.



You can take an audio tour of the “blessed old Yellowstone Wonderland” via the Acoustic Atlas Yellowstone National Park Collection and Yellowstone National Park’s Sound Library.

Beehive Geyser, compilation” recorded by Peter Comely and “Mud pots, Fountain Paint Pots” recorded by Jennifer Jerrett are public domain audio files. “Rain and thunder, Grand Teton National Park” audio file courtesy of the National Park Service. “American Dipper song” audio files copyright 2014, Kevin Colver, all rights reserved.

Photo credit: “Postcard of Crested Pool & Castle Geyser” and “Postcard of Old Faithful Geyser” by Frank J. Haynes / NPS.

Writing Sound: Darwin and the love of birds

Outer tail-feather of Scolopax gallinago, illustration in Darwin's The Descent of Man, By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.
Outer tail-feather of Scolopax gallinago, illustration in Darwin’s The Descent of Man, By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.
Seeking a quote to share for International Darwin Day, I soon found connection with another celebration just around the corner: Valentine’s Day. It turns out that when Charles Darwin wrote about bird sound and song, he also wrote of love and connection:

We can concentrate…greater intensity of feeling in a single musical note than in pages of writing. Nearly the same emotions, but much weaker and less complex, are probably felt by birds when the male pours forth his full volume of song…Love is still the commonest theme of our own songs.

When we think birds and love, it’s easy to focus on the vocalIndeed, Darwin has a great deal to say about bird songs and sexual selection. But he also wrote about the instrumental sounds that birds make in pursuit of mates:

The diversity of the sounds, both vocal and instrumental, made by the males of many species during the breeding-season, and the diversity of the means for producing such sounds, are highly remarkable…It is not difficult to imagine the steps by which the notes of a bird, primarily used as a mere call or for some other purpose, might have been improved into a melodious love-song. This is somewhat more difficult in the case of the modified feathers, by which the drumming, whistling, or roaring noises are produced. But we have seen that some birds during their courtship flutter, shake, or rattle their unmodified feathers together; and if the females were led to select the best performers, the males which possessed the strongest or thickest, or most attenuated feathers…would be the most successful; and thus by slow degrees the feathers might be modified to almost any extent…

Let’s take a listen to a couple of examples of instrumental bird sounds. Darwin quoted descriptions of the Ruffed Grouse’s mating displays:

Another North American grouse, the Tetrao umbellus, when with his tail erect, his ruffs displayed, “he shows off his itnery to the females, who lie hid in the neighbourhood,” drums rapidly with his “lowered wings on the trunk of a fallen tree,” or, according to Audubon, against his own body; the sound thus produced is compared by some to distant thunder, and by others to the quick roll of a drum.

John James Audubon's Ruffed Grouse. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
John James Audubon’s Ruffed Grouse. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

He goes on to describe the Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago):

The drumming, or bleating, or neighing, or thundering noise, as expressed by different observers, which is made by the common snipe (Scolopax gallinago) must have surprised every one who has ever heard it.

Once considered the same species as Europe’s Common Snipe, the North American Wilson’s Snipe (Gallinago delicata) makes a similar sound, as heard in this Audio Postcard from Yellowstone National Park:

Wilson's Snipe by Mdf used in accordance with CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons.
Wilson’s Snipe by Mdf used in accordance with CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Audio Postcard, we hear from Katy Duffy, Interpretive Planner for Yellowstone National Park and a self-confessed “addicted birder.” Her description of the Wilson’s Snipe’s siren “song”:

What male Wilson’s snipe do this time of the year — in the Spring — they do this flight — these winnowing flights is what they’re called — So each time they flap their wings it pushes air through the stiff outer tail feathers and it makes that “woo woo woo woo woo” kind of sound…It’s a metallic sound. It’s goin’ on over your head so it’s really hard to pinpoint where the bird is. It’s eerie. It’s strange because it’s often happening at dusk or at night, so it’s coming out of the darkness. That’s what’s fascinating is that it happens at a time that’s sort of magical. I always think of dusk as magical because almost anything can happen. Your imagination kind of goes wild and when you hear sounds out of this, oh, semi-darkness, they seem ethereal…otherworldly…wild…and they are! And it’s neat. We use other senses. I love when we use more than just our eyes.

What a world that we live in, where two distinct celebrations – Darwin’s Day and Valentine’s Day – provide through their coincidence an opportunity to reflect on connection, love, and our sensory experience of the world. It does my heart good to read – and hear – sounds that were as inspiring to a naturalist who changed the world more than a century ago as they are to today’s scientists, birders, and lovers of the wild.

The Acoustic Atlas is curated by the Montana State University Library and includes more than 2500 recordings of species and environments from throughout the Western United States. Our collection emphasizes the strong connection between natural sounds and regional ecosystems, and features a growing number of recordings from Montana and the Yellowstone corridor. Sounds are provided with the help of volunteers, researchers, and through collaborations with agencies like the National Park Service.

Source for Darwin quotes: The Descent of Man: And Selection in Relation to Sex, Volume 2 by Charles Darwin

Ruffed Grouse” audio copyright Kevin Colver, 2014, all rights reserved. “Snipe Hunt” Audio Postcard, produced by Yellowstone National Park, public domain.

To Catch a Loon

ToCatchALoon (1)

If you heard “To Catch a Loon,” our first episode of Telemetry, where we explored the surprising world of loon conservation, then you probably heard a lot of loon calling. Did you know that loons have four different calls: the yodel, the wail, the hoot, and the tremolo?

The yodel is a call of territoriality. It’s unique in that it has a voiceprint, almost like a fingerprint. In the early days of loon research, before a reliable capture technique was established, scientists tried to use the voiceprint as a way to identify individual birds. Interestingly, only male loons yodel and sometimes one male will try to mimic another male’s call, probably in an attempt to move in on his territory. Scientists can interpret a lot about an individual loon from its yodel: the pitch or tone of the call gives scientists clues about the size and body condition of that loon, and the number of repeated phrases added on to the yodel can reflect a loon’s willingness to fight and defend its territory.

Take a listen to a yodel call:


The wail is more of a long distance contact call: “I’m over here, where are you?” You can hear a nice loon wail at the beginning of “To Catch a Loon”, at the 26 second mark:


The hoot is a contact call for the chick, which can be heard in the story during the capture sequence as a response to the scientists mimicking chick calls (6 minutes, 31 seconds).

The tremolo is a staccato call. It’s the only call that loons give while they’re in the air and it’s basically used as an alarm:  “Something’s not right here. I’m concerned, so don’t come any closer.”  In our loon story, listen for the tremolo starting at the 6 minute mark, right after the scientists make their first “scoop attempt” during capture.

The call of the loon is something that has always resonated with me. And I don’t think I’m alone in that.Who can forget the loons of On Golden Pond —the symbolic metaphor they were for the cycle of life.

In “To Catch a Loon,” one of the researchers talks about our connection with loons as our greater connection with nature: “Loons are a high-profile species. They sing and they dance. They attract people’s attention and people fall in love with them without ever being a biologist. You fall in love with any species and you suddenly realize the complexity of the whole natural web of life.”

We’re all caught up together in that web. Think about that the next time you’re lucky enough to hear the call of the loon ring out in the wild.

Exploding trees at 60 below

The coldest temperature ever measured in the lower 48 states was at Rogers Pass in Lewis and Clark County, Montana. The date was January 20, 1954, and the thermometer dropped to minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

While this winter has not reached that extreme, history marks at least a few times when temperatures came close. An account from the Montana Historical Society describes what might, in some ways, be referred to as a cold snap. In it, Raymond Holderman discusses life in Fort Peck during the winter of 1936 when the trees began to explode.

R.H.: We had a sawmill setup there, so we would saw all these big cottonwood trees that… Oh, they were 3, 4, 5 feet in diameter. In fact, they were big trees when Lewis and Clark went through 135 years before—they were big trees already. And they would saw those and stack them all winter long….

One winter we got caught in when we saw the thermometer [at] 60 below zero. That, that was cold. That was cold. 

[Interviewer]: How’d you deal with being that cold?

R.H.: Oh, I’m telling you… We were sawing those trees, and the trees were just like cutting ice. They were frozen. And once in a while one of those things would crack because of the water in the cells of the tree. And when that would let go it sounded like a big army rifle going off right alongside your ear. An ought six, I’d say. Because I had one of those big game rifles, and that sounded just like that one went off. You know, you’d just jump when that thing would pop. You didn’t know what happened for a second. Then you’d know that big old cottonwood there split, and it would have a big split in there. Oh golly, that was cold.   

Acoustic Atlas teams with NPS to gather the sounds of Yellowstone

The Acoustic Atlas Yellowstone collection is now available! The collection includes sounds from our partnership with the National Park Service. Read the full press release below. Yellowstone_collection_screenshot

Date: January 28, 2016
Contact: Sandra Snell-Dobert, (307) 344-2015
Contact: Molly Arrandale, (406) 994-5307
Yellowstone National Park and the Acoustic Atlas at Montana State University Library announced today the launch of the Yellowstone Collection, a curated compilation of field recordings and a developing podcast series highlighting America’s first national park.

Through a cooperative project between the Acoustic Atlas and Yellowstone National Park, the growing audio collection aims to create new ways to experience the animals, landscapes, and people of the area, by offering a freely accessible online archive of natural sounds, interviews, and radio stories focused on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“We could not be more excited to share the sounds of Yellowstone through our archive,” Kenning Arlitsch, Dean of the Montana State University Library, said. “Montana State University Library launched the Acoustic Atlas because there are relatively few natural sound collections at libraries, and even fewer focusing on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”The Acoustic Atlas was founded in 2013 and includes recordings from throughout the Western United States. The Yellowstone collection builds on its mission to document the sounds of regional ecosystems.

In addition to expanding the natural sounds collection at MSU, the field recordings will be used as a foundation in creating sound-rich, podcast-style audio pieces that tell the stories of research and issues in Yellowstone National Park. The audio stories, which visitors and followers can listen to online, will highlight the rich, but changing, soundscapes of the area, chronicle some of the research taking place in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and spotlight key voices in the region. Project producer and Yellowstone National Park correspondent Jennifer Jerrett says, “It’s kind of like public radio for Yellowstone National Park. I hope these stories build perspective and advance our conversations about science and the complexities of preservation in Yellowstone.”Jerrett continues, “2016 marks the National Park Service Centennial, so it seems fitting to stop and listen—to really listen—and reflect on the meaning of parks and preservation in America. I’m proud to be working on such an extraordinary project.”

The project is supported in part by Montana State University, the Yellowstone Association, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and by a generous grant through the Eyes on Yellowstone program. Eyes on Yellowstone is made possible by Canon U.S.A., Inc. This program represents the largest corporate donation for wildlife conservation in the park. Audio from the partnership can be accessed through both the Yellowstone National Park and Acoustic Atlas websites.


Acoustic Atlas Yellowstone collection:

National Park Service:

Press release:



Writing sound: Theodore Roosevelt composed American wildness

Sandhill cranes in flight.

The ongoing occupation of Malheur National Wildlife refuge invites us to read – and listen to – some of what inspired the creation of America’s wildlife refuge system. Theodore Roosevelt composed American wildness, both in his naturalist writings and in ordering the protection of the landscapes that he so loved.

“If the desert is holy,” writes conservationist author Terry Tempest Williams, “it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred.” The armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge by a group of anti-government protesters this week invites us to remember a forgotten place in Oregon’s high desert and to reflect on what is sacrosanct in the American experience.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is not a blank place on the map to me; as an undergraduate student, I scraped paint on outbuildings at Malheur’s field station in exchange for board and an unforgettable week of birding and field natural history. Yet as the refuge floods back to me for the first time in years, Malheur – and indeed much of our public lands heritage – strike me as unremembered. How many Americans had never heard of Malheur – the crown jewel of the national wildlife refuge system – before armed protesters closed it to the people this week? And what number of us feel connected to the history and significance of its creation?

Malheur is among the more than 280,000 square miles of federal land set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt as national parks, monuments, game refuges, and bird sanctuaries. “We are not building this country of ours for a day,” he wrote. “It is to last through the ages.”

Theodore Roosevelt understood the enormous energies that were being loosed in America. And he saw that among the things they could devour, these forces, if not contained, would be some of the irreplaceable beauties of the country.

George Will, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”

More than a century after Roosevelt’s conservation presidency armed protesters have closed down one of his creations, seeking a fundamental shift in the governance of our public lands. I won’t speak to the politics of this event beyond wishing for a safe and expeditious resolution. But I will take this opportunity to share some of what Theodore Roosevelt saw – and heard – in the American landscapes he felt compelled to protect in perpetuity.

He wrote joyously about birds and their songs:

Of snow buntings:23794392759_93bd95c83f_z

Every few moments one of them would mount into the air, hovering about with quivering wings and warbling a loud, merry song with some very sweet notes. They were a most welcome little group of guests…


Of meadowlarks:

One of our sweetest, loudest songsters is the meadow-lark…the plains air seems to give it a voice, and it will perch on the top of a bush or tree and sing for hours in rich, bubbling tones…Its song has variety, power, and rich melody and there in it sometimes a cadence of wild sadness, inexpressibly touching.


Of the mourning dove:419493070_98ca0d9b18_z

From the upper branches of the cottonwood trees overhead…comes every now and then the soft, melancholy cooing of the mourning dove, whose voice always seems far away and expresses more than any other sound in nature the sadness of gentle, hopeless, never-ending grief.


He wrote of the hermit thrush’s song:

The serene ethereal beauty of the hermit’s song rising and falling through the still evening under the archways of hoary mountain forests that have endured from time everlasting…


Of the “remarkable and almost amphibious little water-wren [American dipper]:2313530208_736aab408f_z

With its sweet song, its familiarity, its very curious habit of running on of the stream several feet beneath surface of the race of rapid water, is the most noticeable of the small birds of the Rocky Mountains. It sometimes sings loudly while half spread wings on the surface of a pool.


He wrote of the “wilder, harsher, stronger sounds of the wilderness”; the sage grouse:

The guttural booming and clucking of the prairie fowl and the great sage fowl in spring…


And of flights of geese and cranes:2510083315_8ac5826aa5_z

The honking of gangs of wild geese as they fly in rapid wedges;…or the far off clanging of many sandhill cranes soaring high overhead in circles which cross and recross at an incredible altitude.


It is of note that all of the songs above – songs that more than a century ago inspired Teddy Roosevelt to set aside some of the “irreplaceable beauties of America” – can be heard on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, along with more than 310 other bird species. You can listen to more recordings – from national wildlife refuges, national parks, and across the American West – at

The Acoustic Atlas is curated by the Montana State University Library and includes more than 2500 recordings of species and environments from throughout the Western United States. Our collection emphasizes the strong connection between natural sounds and regional ecosystems, and features a growing number of recordings from Montana and the Yellowstone corridor. Sounds are provided with the help of volunteers, researchers, and through collaborations with agencies like the National Park Service.

Sources: The Works of Theodore Roosevelt: The Wilderness Hunter, Theodore Roosevelt’s Ranch Life and the Hunting TrailTheodore Roosevelt QuotesThe Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. 

Snow Bunting“, “Western Meadowlark (0000490)“, “Mourning Dove“, “Hermit Thrush“, “American Dipper song” audio files copyright 2014, Kevin Colver, all rights reserved; “Sandhill Crane and geese, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park” audio file copyright 2009, the Western Soundscape Archive at the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library, used in accordance with Creative Commons BY-ND-NC 2.0; “Greater Sage Grouse and coyotes” audio file copyright 2006, Jeff Rice, all rights reserved.

Images used in accordance with Creative Commons BY-ND-NC 2.0: “Snow Bunting” by flickr user Tom Benson; “Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) DSC_0069“, “Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) DSC_0054” and “Ross’ Geese (Chen rossii) DSC_0104” by flickr user Dan Dzurisin; “Mourning Dove / Tourterelle Triste” by flickr user Eric Begin; “Hermit Thrush” by flickr user Kelly Colgan Azar; “American Dipper – Part 5 – Taking a Bow!” by flickr user Rick Leche – Photography. 

Writing sound: Thoreau and the wood thrush

We often find inspiration for tweeting sounds from the Acoustic Atlas in the words of poets, authors, and naturalists.

Alas, 140 characters are too few to do justice to many of these descriptions. So we turn to these pages to pair longer passages with recordings of the species and spaces that inspired them.

"Wood Thrush" by Kelly Colgan Azar used in accordance with CC BY-ND 2.0. Take, for example, this oft-noted description of the Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) by Henry David Thoreau:

I admire the moderation of this master. There is nothing tumultuous in his song. He launches forth one strain with all his heart and life and soul; a pure and unmatchable melody and then he pauses and gives the hearer and himself time to digest this. And then another and another at suitable intervals.

Take a listen:


Thoreau’s description captures the cadence and honesty of the Wood Thrush’s refrain. His admiration for this bird extends beyond his apt observations:

This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It is a medicative draught to my soul. It is an elixir to my eyes and a fountain of youth to all my senses. It changes all hours to an eternal morning…I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings, where the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the grass, and the day is forever unproved, where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil about me.

What species – or soundscape – is your Wood Thrush? Find your “ranz des vaches” at

We first heard Thoreau’s quotations on the Wood Thrush from Radio Open Source’s show “The Art of Wildness”. Source for Thoreau’s quotations: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: Journal, edited by Bradford Torrey. Image source: “Wood Thrush” by Kelly Colgan Azar used in accordance with CC BY-ND 2.0. Audio file copyright 2014, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved.