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Sounds of the eclipse


WORLD Radio - Sounds of the eclipse

A team of soundscape ecologists in Indiana study wildlife during a total solar eclipse

Kristen Bellisario Purdue University/Photo by Tom Campbell

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Thursday, April 11th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

BROWN: Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the sounds of an eclipse.

As the moon passed in front of the sun on Monday, millions of people heard this.


The sound of people celebrating a wonder of God’s creation. But a few people heard something a little different.

REICHARD: WORLD’s Mary Muncy followed a team of researchers into the woods of Indiana. Here’s the story

KRISTEN BELLISARIO: Okay who’s ready for this one?

MARY MUNCY: Kristen Bellisario and three other researchers are squished onto an ATV trying to make it up a big hill. They’re on their way to a clearing in the middle of a southern Indiana forest to see how wildlife responds to the eclipse.

BELLISARIO: We made it!

Bellisario is a soundscape researcher. She and ten other researchers from Purdue University are hoping to use this opportunity to understand how birds, insects, and amphibians react to darkness at the wrong time of day.

Bryan Pijanowski is leading the project and gathers the group into a circle.

BRYAN PIJANOWSKI: Did everybody take a look at the observation score sheet that I sent out last night? [People agree] Okay.

One side of the sheet is to make observations and record the sounds of different animal classes.

PIJANOWSKI: And then, on the other side, is to record all the sensory things, what do you see? What do you feel because you're gonna experience temperature fluctuations, wind speeds gonna die down, that kind of thing. And then what do you hear that's different? So make those general observations.

They planted microphones all over the area a week ago, and they’ll gather them back up in another seven days. Now, on eclipse day, they’ve brought out wind and light sensors, along with thermometers and cameras. They’re also going to use their own eyes and ears to record what’s happening.

PIJANOWSKI: The reason I'm doing that sensory stuff is because well the animals are, are just like us, they they're sensing all these other types of changes, which are visual and, and temperature, and even the wind speed, they use that as cues.

The researchers are hoping that as the eclipse starts, the daytime animals, like birds, will stop singing. Then they hope to start hearing nocturnal animals, like frogs, bats, and maybe an owl or two.

By 11:30 one team has set up their equipment on top of a hill, while the other team heads down to the side of a reservoir. Bellisario goes with the second team so she can listen to the hydrophone they put in the water a few minutes ago…

They settle into camp chairs, surrounded by a few devices. Then they stop talking, and start listening.

Bellisario puts on the headphones for the hydrophone.

BELLISARIO: I am hearing a series of small clicks. It’s interesting. Oh, and you can even hear some water drops, so when an animal hits the water. It’s definitely very sparse so not much activity.

The clicks are probably from aquatic invertebrates—things like katydids and damselflies.

She takes the headphones off and settles back in her chair to record which birds are singing.

BELLISARIO: [BIRD SONG] Bajeeber jeeber jeeber. I call the Northern Cardinal the ‘Bajeeber bird.’ That’s a Red-winged Blackbird over there.

During the last eclipse, Bellisario and the team put their recorders in places like zoos and national parks, but when the eclipse happened there were too many people shouting for joy for them to get any usable data. That’s why they’re in the middle of the woods this time.

They sit mostly in silence for about an hour—deep listening—trying to figure out what’s making low sounds, what’s making high sounds, and what the patterns are. Then at about 1:00pm, they break their silence for a few minutes.

PIJANOWSKI: So far it looks like 24 different species of birds.

Bellisario says she’s recorded the temperature drop a few times and she says the number of birds singing is abnormal for midday. Normally they sing in the cool parts of the day.

But as they whisper their findings, they’re interrupted…

PIJANOWSKI: Species of birds.

STUDENT: Spring Peepers.


PIJANOWSKI: Yes!... Spring peepers.

The nocturnal frogs sing for just a few seconds, but it’s enough to let the researchers know they’re there.

PIJANOWSKI: The hypothesis we have is that they will start shouting and screaming during the eclipse.

They all smile, stand up to stretch, and get a snack. So far, so good. But as they settle back for their second round of listening, they realize they can hear a train, sometimes the road, and someone mowing their lawn.

They’re not quite as remote as they thought they’d be. But they ignore all of it as the birds slowly stop singing. And the wind starts to die down.

AUDIO: [Sound of woods]

They come out of their silence for their last break just before the eclipse starts at around 3:00.

PIJANOWSKI: There's a chance that this could be a very abrupt change, so everything that we've been seeing so far has been a very general trend.

After Pijanowski gives his last instructions, the researchers are absolutely silent. The birds stop singing. The trees are still. Fish start jumping. Bellisario puts on the headphones for the hydrophone and starts hearing massive numbers of clicks and then just as the moon fully eclipses the sun.

AUDIO: [Frogs]

The frogs explode into song.

Pijanowski stands up. The other researchers smile and look around excitedly. They don’t make a sound as the world goes dark for a few minutes.

AUDIO: [Frogs, fireworks]

Then, fireworks somewhere in the distance.

The researchers look at each other and shrug.

As the fireworks continue, they break their silence.

PIJANOWSKI: Okay so anything that’s a light that’s not flickering is a planet…

They wait as the sky gets brighter. The frogs stop singing all at once and the birds start coming back one by one.

They keep listening for a few more minutes, recording observations, then they go back to the ATVs to grab a celebratory cookie.

PIJANOWSKI: The most surprising thing? I think—how quickly the birds start quieting down. But the explosive nature of the frog community was like, Wow.

Even with the interruptions, Bellisario and the other researchers think they got usable data. But the real project won’t start until they gather their recording equipment and start analyzing the sounds they captured. Then, they’ll start to have a deeper understanding of what nature had to say.

AUDIO: [Sound of frogs]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy, in Butlerville, Indiana.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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