24 May 2021

How well do you know the UK's natural soundscape?

Turning up the volume on nature's soundtrack

By Yosola Olorunshola

A string-based installation representing a musical stave in Coates Wood, Wakehurst

In the relative quiet of Britain’s first lockdown, the sound of birdsong became a familiar refrain up and down the country. 

Whether you were working from home in the middle of a city or wandering down a country lane, it’s likely that you experienced the sound of birds cooing or warbling away in the background. But beyond classic birdsong, how much of Britain’s natural soundscape can you recognise?  

This summer, Wakehurst celebrates a symphony of sounds from the natural world. Through art installations, workshops and events, the natural noises of our wild gardens will be brought to life.   

Before you join in the fun, get to know some of the wild sounds you can hear in our gardens and beyond.  

Woodpeckers 

Instead of using a song like other birds, male woodpeckers master a drumbeat to mark their territories and attract a mate.     

Great spotted woodpecker on a tree
A great spotted woodpecker, Emanuela Meli/Unsplash

The great spotted woodpecker (Picoides major) - or ‘Great Spots’ if you’re an avid birdwatcher - is the UK’s most common woodpecker and can be found in woodlands all year round, particularly in habitats with mature broad-leaved trees.

Mainly black and white, the males have a distinct red patch on the back of the head, making them easier to spot.   

Their drumming season is most intense between late January and April.  

Woodpeckers use their sharp bills to drum against the bark of dead trees or other substitutes, like telegraph poles, to physically mark their spot. A Great Spot’s drumbeat can reach a rapid 40 hits per second - 10 times faster than the world’s fastest typist! 

Bats 

Bats are largely nocturnal and cannot be heard by human ears, so it’s easy to miss the role they play in our environment. 

They use sound to navigate through a system called 'echolocation', using their ears more than their eyes. 

Bats in a bat box
Bats, credit: Sussex Bat Society

Bats produce clicking sounds at an ultrasonic frequency, meaning that their calls are too high for humans to hear.  

These sounds bounce off objects, such as insects, and the echoes produced help bats judge sizes, shapes and distances.  

To tune into this secret language of bats, you need a bat detector - a tool to translate their ultrasonic sounds to a pitch our ears can hear (even if you can’t quite eavesdrop on their conversations).  

Globally, bats are key pollinators, pest controllers, and help indicate important changes in biodiversity.  

All British bats are insectivores, meaning they only feast on insects. They provide a vital service to agriculture by reducing the need for artificial pesticides. But some agricultural practices can harm their diets by killing off insect populations before bats have a chance to eat them.  

Check out our upcoming bat walks at Wakehurst to hear their calls for yourself. 

Bees  

While the sound of a bee buzzing nearby may be all too familiar, the reasons why they buzz are less so.

Bee on a flower
Buff-tailed bumblebee collecting nectar and pollen on a silver lime flower. Credit RBG Kew.

All bees buzz when they fly, producing the sound from the beating of their wings. But they also buzz as a defence mechanism when under threat, and to communicate with each other. 

Most importantly, some species of bee (including the bumblebee) buzz as part of the pollination process.  

In plants where the pollen is trickier to access, these bees vibrate their bodies to shake the pollen out in a process known as ‘buzz pollination’ or ‘flower buzzing.’ Many common plants are pollinated in this way, including potatoes, tomatoes and blueberries.   

Almost 90% of wild plant species and 75% of the crops we use for food depend on pollination, and we rely on more than 20,000 species of bees to carry out much of this work.  

Little Owls  

Little Owls (Athene noctua) are noisiest in the breeding season, when they try to establish their territories in late winter and early spring with excitable squeals and chirps.  

Little owl perched in a tree at Wakehurst
Little owl at Wakehurst, Steven Robinson © RBG Kew

Despite their cute-sounding name, Little Owls are keen predators, feeding mainly on insects like crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and earthworms, and sometimes small mammals.  

They are most common in central, southern and south-eastern England and the Welsh borders, and fare best in areas of mixed farmlands – and can be spotted at Wakehurst too

Although they are most active at dawn and dusk, or during their late-night hunts, you can often spot them in the middle of the day perched on a fence enjoying the sunlight.  

Badgers 

One of Britain’s most fictionalised mammals, badgers are relatively discreet creatures despite their popularity.  

Badger walking over a tree root
Badgers, James Warwick / RBG Kew

Rarely seen during the day, they only emerge from their underground burrows (setts) at dusk to feed on whatever food they can find, including earthworms and other insects, frogs, rodents, birds, eggs, lizards, bulbs and berries. As a result of this varied diet, evolutionary scientist and badger enthusiast Professor Tim Roper has described them as ‘opportunistic omnivores.’ 

Their reclusive reputation is somewhat misleading however, as badgers are social animals, living in groups of four to eight animals at a time.  

Scent is key to badger communication, as they use smell to mark their territory, tighten bonds between social groups and show off their mating status. 

Although their vocabulary is limited, badgers have also been known to communicate by growling, grunting, squealing, squeaking, snuffling and even ‘chortling’.  

What word would you use to describe the badger sounds above? 

Summer of Sound

Summer of Sound

Visit Wakehurst to unearth our wild landscape through art and sound

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