Re-Sounding Place? An Ethnographic Invitation

by Chiara Garbellotto on 14 April 2021

From February 2018 until May 2019, my ethnographic research unfolded in relation to the Citizen Science (CS) project ‘Nightingale’ (Forschungsfall Nachtigall), a two-year project designed and produced by a team of biologists based at the Digital World and Information Science department of the Natural History Museum in Berlin. Scientifically aimed at investigating nightingales’ diverse song repertoires and mapping their distribution in Berlin, this CS project had the intent to engage people in the scientific processes of knowledge production belonging to this field, beyond single events and the mere transmission of informational content. Even though the broader logistics of this case is not the scope of the report I produced, it is relevant to underline how much this project was embedded in the recent booming of the CS field within German-speaking countries and Europe at large. An example of this is the 2016 funding from the German Federal Ministry of Research of thirteen CS projects with almost five million Euros over three years, among which is the ‘Nightingale’ project. Moreover, both the platform for citizen science in Germany, Bürger Schaffen Wissen (‘Citizens Create Knowledge’), and the European Citizen Science Association (ECSA) are based at the Museum für Naturkunde.

As a consequence of the project launch, a complex assemblage of actors convened in the course of 2018 and 2019, composed not only of humans and nightingales. Mobiles and apps, computers and software, educational cards and slides, sewing material, CS guidelines and web platforms, city parks, social media, maps and photographs were some of those who became most visible within this relational field thanks to the team’s mediation and interpretation work and indeed through my ethnographic research. I became a part of this assemblage, although in a peripheral way, firstly by entering into a conversation with one of its project leaders and then by participating in some of the internal and public events and workshops dedicated to adult publics, by analysing governmental and scientific papers, and by co-writing a paper myself, together with my doctoral supervisor, Professor Tahani Nadim.

Choosing to work from a natureculture approach primarily entails the methodological move of considering the CS project as a multispecies assemblage and the birds, as well as humans and technologies, as active contributors to its unfolding (Bird Rose and Dooren 2012; Gibson et al. 2015; Hinchliffe 2017; Pizarro and Larson 2017; Somerville and Bodkin 2016). By listening, walking, telling, and remembering alongside nightingales, as Johanna Latimer (2013) proposes in her critical response to Haraway’s ‘thinking-with’, a particular kind of critical reflection is opened up about ‘modes of knowing’ and ‘participation’, one that, besides representational accounts of the CS project’s indicators (Anderson and Harrison 2016), calls into consideration the affects and the embodied experiences through which the everyday life of the project unfolded. By engaging more closely with the lives of nightingales and indeed by physically going closer to them in order to perform and mediate animal behaviour and bioacoustics research, issues such as environmental relations, memory, and the politics of urban governmentality also mattered in the multispecies encounters through both detachments from and attachments to the animals (Despret 2013; Latimer 2013).

Storying Place

I want to propose here a possible way to work with ethnographic observations and naturecultures by working with the concept of ‘sense-of-place’ or, better, by asking how a ‘sense-of-place’ was made in the researched encounters. This concept can be generative for this case in so far as the project’s scope has been designed by the team in connection to a conception of nature as ‘out there’, in contrast to private places such as the museum itself or private homes. At the same time, it defined the city of Berlin as both the capital of the (male) nightingales and a common place of arrival for ‘new citizens’. The separation of the ‘private’ from the ‘public’ indeed permeates the project at many levels, hinging so crucially on the museum’s institutional function of the engagement of ‘publics’ within the modern space of ‘public life’. The ‘out there’ and ‘Berlin’, nevertheless, are considered here not as pre-existing categories, but as produced through the project’s enactment, whose aims and strategies directly informed its material production. Encountering nightingales in their habitat was in fact the solution that biologists proposed in response to their concerns regarding public awareness of extinction in ‘urban nature’ as a consequence of anthropogenic-induced changes. Such a solution also responds to other specific necessities of the institutional location where these concerns live: broadening audiences, making use of Naturblick, the in-housed developed app, adding records to the museum Tierstimmenarchiv (‘Animal Sounds Archive’) and making the raw files available in the spirit of ‘open science’. Issues of the intensive agricultural use of rural land and the urban management of parks and Berlin Brachen[1] have been indeed addressed and voiced in both private conversations and during guided tour exchanges, but never as working material for the participatory activities themselves. This was possible, I argue, thanks to a separation between the outputs produced––the bioacoustics analysis and its visualisations in the strophes catalogue, and the map or the inscribed stories and memories––and the sphere of embodied and affective experience. This is particularly relevant when considering the aim of guided tours and ‘scientific’ workshops to form a sort of training in bioacoustics and animal behaviour for the participants. This took the form of oral explanations, visual prompts (i.e., plasticised A4 boards and PowerPoint presentations) and invitations to join the recording practice. This training mediated the encounter experience through a specific language and certain technologies, which articulated nightingales into selected descriptions of those actions and interactions that matched scientific questions and methods.

Deborah Bird Rose and Thom van Dooren’s definition of place is an interesting angle from which to think such human-nightingales encounters:

‘Places are materialized as historical and meaningful, and no place is produced by a singular vision of how it is or might be. In short, places are co-constituted in processes of overlapping and entangled “storying” in which different participants may have very different ideas about where we have come from and where we are going’ (2012, 2).

Considering the authors’ intention of reconstituting cities as places for multispecies conviviality (Hinchliffe and Whatmore 2006), further in the same text they make their ethical proposal explicit:

‘(…) the place of wildlife in the city opens our engagement with the urban in ethically compelling ways. The city is not so much an objective fact as it is a specific material mode of storying––a way of understanding relating and becoming. It is a story, told and enacted by many creatures. And ultimately, this intersection of multiple storied-places and their tellers gives rise to an ethical question of particular importance for this time of anthropogenic change called the “Anthropocene”: are we able to engage meaningfully with very different ways of knowing and living in a place?’  (2012, 18).

Apart from human-centred storying that positions animals and environments as symbolic prompts for identity-making processes (Haywood 2014; Pizarro and Larson 2017), this approach invites to pay attention to the possibilities opened up by exploring how animals and humans produce their place by being ‘alongside’ each other. Interestingly, in this case, the capacity to produce a meaningful relation to the local place can be recognised as a central object of the project’s scientific endeavour itself, namely, the exploration of nightingales’ repertoire transmission during breeding and the hypothetical differentiation of dialects according to specific geographical areas.  The capacity of nightingales to construct meanings according to their perceptive and communicational capacities is particularly related to their complex and open-ended learning process that begins when songs are transmitted to the next generation during the breeding season and influenced by the acoustic environments where they sing and nest. It also manifests itself in the ‘site fidelity’ of these birds that, in the seasonality of their migratory pattern, go back to the same breeding territories, even to the same tree branch.

These characteristics, combined with the fact that nightingales have been less affected by urban developments in Berlin than in other European cities––the comparisons exist precisely because of the history of ornithological monitoring that provides data to compare––make nightingales the perfect actor to work with in a CS format and to use as a proxy to engage people in naturalist practices ‘in situ’.

Re-Sounding Place?

Going back to the ethnographic experience through the concept of ‘sense-of-place’ is one possible way to articulate how affective modes of engaging with these birds and their environments contributed to the creation of the humans-nightingales assemblage. If we take the definition of story given by Deborah Bird Rose and Tom van Dooren as ‘(…) that which emerges out of an ability to engage with happenings in the world as sequential and meaningful events’ (Bird Rose and Dooren 2012, 3), we can find meaningful expressions of different kinds of relationalities with the nightingales, for instance, in the wish of participants to have the recorded songs given back to them after having uploaded them in the app. This wish for communicating the closeness to birds is also evident in the choice of a participant to wear a T-shirt with a printed bird on it during the bioacoustics workshop. The wish manifested by some participants during one tour to discover more about places inhabited by other birds –– a wooden birdhouse nailed to a tree and the entrances of the pedestrian underground tunnel beneath the Siegessäule (a victory column at the centre of the main roundabout in the capital’s park Tiergarten) where swallows nest – can also be recognised as a serendipitous mode of making the experience meaningful by engaging directly with the locality and the presentness of the encounter. On another note, the atmosphere of suspense when getting closer to the singing nightingale in the park at night during another tour and the voiced emotions shared by everyone in the group when seeing one helps manifesting the role of affect in the collective performance of such encounters.

Fig. 1. Berlin scrubs, Park am Nordbahnhof, Berlin


Fig. 2. Guided Tour in Tiergarten, Berlin (June 13, 2018)


As already mentioned, the ongoing scientific research grounding this CS project works specifically on nightingales’ long-term learning and use of song types. The difference between young and older nightingales in the plasticity of song sequencing is studied through the analysis of singing interactions such as song matching, song overlapping and the temporal response patterns (Bartsch et al. 2014; Bartsch et al. 2016; Bartsch, Weiss, and Kipper 2015; Kiefer et al. 2014; Kiefer et al. 2014b; Sprau et al. 2013; Sung and Park 2005; Weiss, Kiefer, and Kipper 2012; Weiss et al. 2014). One example from this specialised research is the study of how new songs are added to male repertoires[2]The (small) percentage of ‘unshared song types’ existing in the repertoires––in contrast to the majority of ‘shared song types’ common for nightingales from the same ‘neighbourhood’––is described as created through ‘invention’, a ‘recombination’ of learned songs, and as a consequence of the ‘immigration’ of male nightingales from other territories (Sprau and Mundry 2010).

‘The interpretation of unshared song types being recombinations, modifications or inventions is supported by the fact that the frequent occurrence of song types being unshared or shared only among a few males shows a striking similarity with the power law-like distributions found in several cultural traits of humans, which, it is suggested, arise through a combination of random copying and cultural mutation (i.e. ‘invention’; e.g., Hahn & Bentley 2003; Bentley et al. 2004; Mesoudi & Lycett 2009)’ (2010, 432).

The analysis of these dynamics is mostly conducted by comparing spectrograms produced digitally out of the recorded data. What is interesting to note is that in this translation, the sonic mode of the embodied beings is turned into a knowing practice that is eminently visual. Moreover, affective experiences are valued differently from representational ones, the latter being quantifiable and thus easily inscribed into outputs.

Staying close to the acoustic experience, then, in a way ‘re-sounding’ the more-than-human encounters beyond a human-centred visual functionality of the acoustic data, would not only add a layer to the exploration of the content theme of the CS project itself, but also support a more nuanced exploration of what kind of ‘participation’ is made valuable and to what purpose. What would thinking about how multispecies sonic worlds come together in the project entail? How could such dynamics be also part of what counts as knowledge in the CS practices? As Joanna Latimer and Mara Miele write, a natureculture approach ‘(…) is about understanding how the specificities of the relations among the different elements of a scientific endeavour (being assembled, composed and imagined, as associations and disassociations), affects a) the kinds of experiments being done, b) the interpretations of their significance and c) the knowledge and understandings produced’ (Latimer and Miele 2013, 25). Re-sounding nightingale-human relations is thus proposed as a way to re-articulate scientific observations by adding new layers to the experience accounted for by public engagement technologies––CS in this case––and their modes of codifying, standardising and circulating it across platforms and through inscriptions such as reports, guidelines, evaluations and peer-reviewed publications. Beyond promises of conviviality, this re-entanglement also makes visible the multiplicity of possible positions, conflicting ones included, on issues such as urban space management and the associated politics and economies, or the existing modes of using public space in urban contexts that challenge modern categories of private and public.

Showing how relations in scientific contexts are already embodied and affective, Maria Puig De La Bellacasa (2017) has proposed to re-think matters of concerns as ‘matters of care’. Moving from theorisations of care by authors such as Joan Tronto and Annamarie Mol, Maria Puig De la Bellacasa underlines the ‘non-innocence’ of the concept of care, pointing at the situatedness of the human responsibilities in specific environments, historicity and embodied relationalities. Beyond a conception of care as either ‘destructive or paternalistic stewardship’ of nonhumans, she asks, ‘How do we acknowledge their agency without denying the asymmetrical power historically developed by human agencies in bios?’ (Puig de la Bellacasa 2010, 159).

To this point, in the introduction to the edited volume Tiergarten, Landscape of Transgression (This Obscure Object of Desire), published as result of the eponymous symposium hosted at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2015, the architects and curators Sandra Bartoli and Jörg Stollmann specifically address the issue of nightingale presence in the city’s main park:

‘Current park management policies are at work to “tame” Tiergarten, as an example, by making it spatially more accessible for the public. The degree of accessibility, however, is a key to its balance: in 2012 there were thirty-two nightingale couples; in 2015 only eight were left. Bushes and trees, the birds’ breeding environment, have been cut down in order to discourage certain forms of social use. Plant control thus becomes social control’ (Bartoli and Stollmann 2019, 11).

Geographer Chris Wilbert responds to this statement in his chapter ‘More-than-human heritage spaces: Stories from Hoo to Tiergarten’:

‘It is necessary to include animals as active beings in what occurs in our lives, and much of this storying and phenomenological-influenced work discusses respectfulness, conversation, and openness. But focusing on the spaces and places of people with animals and other entities means also engaging with things like capitalism, markets, and histories of land changes and the forces involved’ (Wilbert 2019, 219).

Addressing the politics of relations between the invited and uninvited more-than-human actors in public engagement could find a starting point in the acknowledgement of the plurality of modes of knowing that are part of participatory assemblages such as the CS ‘Nightingale’ project, not only in terms of different epistemologies, but also in terms of multisensory, affective and embodied constituents of lived experience. Attending at the situatedness and complexity of such assemblages helps make visible how doing such a form of institutional CS works through the re-assembling of specific histories of scientific concerns and practices as part of the experimentation and professionalisation of the CS field. It also highlights how local multiple repertoires of living in the city and caring for environmental and animal issues are also performed through the natural history museums. These two processes can be productively explored when the categorisations of ‘scientists’ and ‘citizens’ or ‘science’ and ‘culture’ are not intended as differential identities and realms structuring the project, but as objects themselves of certain kinds of participatory work in CS.



[1] The word ‘Brachen’ refers in German to lands that have not been put to use. In the specific context of Berlin, ‘Brachen’ have also been defined by urban ecologists as specific urban biotopes, where biodiversity has developed aside of the planning and design through which the rest of the city has been managed, especially during its divide history. The word is translated to English with ‘fallow’ or ‘brownfield’, even though such terms are often deemed not apt to convey the whole range of spatial, temporal and relational meanings that ‘Brachen’ hold together. For an introduction to the theme from the fields of social sciences and humanities, see Hauser 2018, Jasper 2018, 2019, Lachmund 2013, Stoetzer 2018.

[2] Animal behaviour practices are grounded in the evolutionary interpretation of ‘male-male’ singing interactions as part of the sexual selection theory. Feminist scholars and historians of science have addressed critically the entanglement and historicity of this biological key theory with normative construction of gender roles and relations (see Ah-King 2018, Fausto-Sterling 2008, Gowaty 2012, Haraway 1989, Hubbard, Henifin, and Fried 1979, Martin 1991, Milam 2010, Subramaniam 2014, among others).



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Chiara Garbellotto is a PhD researcher currently based at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin’s Institute for European Ethnology and at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. From 2017 until 2020, she was part of the ‘Making Differences’ project at CARMAH. In her ethnographic research and writing, she critically engages with the concepts of ‘biodiversity’ and ‘participation’ as multiple and of ‘knowing’ and ‘caring’ as political, exploring current public engagement practices in natural history museums as more-than-human assemblages.