Listen for a Non-Human Voice

I was an indoorsy person from an indoorsy family. I grew up with Entertainment Tonight on the television at dinnertime; I could identify hundreds of celebrities whether I cared about them or not. I couldn’t identify much from the natural world.

Then I began to notice nature in New York City.

The First Mysterious Encounter

My first natural discovery was in Prospect Park. I found a bird singing in an overgrown bush. At least, I guessed it was a bird. I couldn’t actually see it.

The bird’s song was a series of astonishing whistles, clicks, gurgles, and whines. I circled the bush, trying desperately to get a glimpse.  I spent at least ten minutes peering through leaves, craning my neck, and feeling increasingly foolish. I never saw the bird.

All I could tell you was that the mystery bird sounded like R2D2.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the description “sounds like R2D2” in any bird field guides.

After a few more attempts at spotting the singing bird, I finally saw it. It was a dapper gray bird with a dark cap and dusky rose under its tail.

Gray Catbird by Fyn Kynd Photography


It was a Gray Catbird.

Here’s an example of the Catbird’s song.

Do you think it sounds like R2D2?

R2D2 by

Listen for a Non-Human Voice

For this week’s experiment in observation, I invite you to listen for a non-human voice.

If you are a beginner, it may feel disorienting to focus your attention away from the human world. Like my first catbird, you may need to train your senses to see the animal or insect making the noise.

You may make unusual associations as a way to remember what you hear like “this bird sounds like a malevolent slide whistle” or “this bird sounds like a fax machine.”

Take a couple of 10-minute sound walks this week. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Seek quiet areas with fewer people like side streets, gardens, parks
  • Experiment with different times of day; for example, you may hear birds singing in the morning and frogs croaking at dusk
  • Take your own field notes or field recordings; you may not find any field guides that correspond to your own sound descriptions but that’s ok

What did you hear?

Great Places in NYC to Hear a Non-Human Voice

I’d love to find out what you think of this experiment. Please let me know in the comments below.



Add yours →

  1. I think you got it wrong. R2D2 sounds like the bird. 😀 Makes me think, maybe R2D2’s voice was based off of this bird then. 😉
    I’ll be hearing nature this weekend because of another hike. Weee!


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