Science Says

Winter Soundscapes

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Mullein is one of my favorite plants to grow because it attracts seed-eating birds, including chickadees and downy woodpeckers, in winter. It also makes dramatic natural sculptures.

Winter offers less visual stimulation. I find myself noticing smells and sounds more. Maybe it’s just that every little bit of sensory input is more important, there being less overall.

For the most part, it is a season of quiet. Snow and fog muffle the sounds of vehicles. People spend more time indoors. House and car windows are closed, cutting down on second-hand music. And leaf blowers hibernate, which I do so appreciate.

There is real beauty in the relative silence. It calms the mind and stretches time.

Yet, because of the lower level of background noise, the sounds that punctuate a winter silence stand out. A creaking tree, a howling wind, the rattle of dry leaves, a snapping twig, the unique squeak of boots on packed snow, and even distant train or airplane sounds seem to draw more attention in winter.

Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and other seed-producing perennials add to the winter soundscape by feeding small birds.

Goldenrods attract birds in summer too, by offering a smorgasbord of insects for them to eat. Stiff goldenrod (foreground) is a mounding plant, unlike many of its relatives, including quick-spreading Canada goldenrod (background).

Not only are many plants dormant, but the animals (which produce sounds more often than plants do) are sparser too. And with the buzzing/humming/chirping insects largely absent, most winter animal sounds are made by birds.

Some highlights are the back-and-forth hooting of owls during their winter mating season, and the sounds of assorted woodpeckers, which can include startling shrieks as well as rapping or drumming. A visiting flock of cedar waxwings is a wonderful winter spectacle for those who have winter berries in their landscapes, and the birds’ exuberant whistling gives a celebratory air to their feasts.

I find it fascinating that many small birds are solitary or stick with their own kind in other seasons but band together into mixed flocks to get through each winter. Scientists speculate that winter flocking gives the birds more protection from predators, so they can spend more of their energy on eating enough to survive each cold night. However, I do wonder if the company of other birds helps them to endure harsher conditions.

Winter berries of highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) are a favorite food of cedar waxwings.

If you miss the sounds of other seasons, they are easy to find online. On these mornings when all is gray outdoors and silent indoors, I often listen to birdsong tracks while working in my home office. My current favorite — also greatly enjoyed by my cats —- is 11 hours of tranquil birdsong.

What do you appreciate in your winter soundscape?

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on December 3, 2014 at 2:01 am, in the category Designs, Tricks, and Schemes, Gardening on the Planet.


  1. Nice. I am appreciating winter more these days since moving to the Carolinas where there are actually four very distinct seasons. I love all the seedheads from the hydrangeas and grasses when they are frosted over.

  2. Negative space. Absence. Necessary things in gardens, in art, in life and thought. I find the winter garden FAR more appealing than the summer one, as you point out our more olfactory senses are called forth — and for me, this connects me more to the echo and the bones of the garden; I know more. This is all contingent on leaving the garden up, which protects the plants, wildlife, and soil. Oh, and seed heads rock:

  3. Reading your piece about being in a northern winter garden fills me with nostalgea. It has been many years since I’ve lived with snow. The closest I get these days is when the north wind comes howling through the prairies for a brief Texas holiday. The air smells so clean I always put the bedding out to try to hold onto it a little longer. Though it has been awhile I can’t forget black branches against winter skies, the crunch of snow underfoot and how in certain lights shadows were blue or purple and seemed to stretch out forever.

  4. How lovely that you don’t have to listen to leaf blowers for part of the year. All my neighbors seem to have different landscape companies and they arrive at different times on different days so it seems like one of them is always here causing a din.

  5. Snow is a minimalist’s dream. It coats the entire landscape, buildings, cars, everything in a clean and white coat. It’s nice sometimes to take a break from the visual complexity of the landscape, especially after fall with it’s height and complexity in terms of growth patterns.

  6. I absolutely love this post! My daughter and I always note the birds twittering as we walk to the bus stop in the dark at 7am. It’s such a cheering sound and reminds us that there is life everywhere.

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