This Conservationist Turns Animal Sounds Into Music—And It's Weirdly Beautiful

Photo: Nataša Mandić

Ben Mirin is probably the only person in the world who can put "sound artist and explorer" on his LinkedIn page. Mirin, who has harbored a deep love for both music and bird-watching from a young age, recently found a way to combine the two into a profession all his own. Now, you can find him recording animal noises around the world and mixing them into conservation art that shares Mother Earth's symphony with the masses.

Mirin was first inspired to blend his two seemingly disparate passions when he was living abroad in Japan after college. "In the absence of everything that was familiar to me, two things remained the same: I continued to be a bird-watcher, and I continued playing music. I thought that was an important lesson about who I was. At the time, I was as uprooted as a person can be, but these things still stayed with me."

Once he moved back to the states and landed a job in New York City, he was further inspired to blend the two, first making his own bird soundtracks as a way to reconnect with the creatures he loved so much. "Living here in NYC, I felt cut off from that side of myself that was a lifelong naturalist because there isn't a lot of nature abundantly present in the city. First, it was just a way to listen to the songs I couldn't hear outside my window anymore."

He turned some woodpecker taps into a drum, chirping calls into a chorus, and the resulting wild orchestra caught the attention of National Geographic. Since this first mix, his career as a nature DJ has sent him on expeditions to India and Madagascar, across the mountains of California and the coasts of Belize. Along the way, he's isolated and recorded the calls of certain animals, searching for a rich, layered story that only nature can tell.

"Inevitably, one sound is hitched to all the other sounds in the orchestra. You can't ever tell a story about one animal without accounting for the rest. That's kind of the amazing thing about how music and science are so similar: Both work with finely tuned systems. Being a kind of ambassador for nature is an honor, and it's very fun."

The next generation of conservationists will be our best solution to the environmental crisis.

There's an educational element to his work. After a trip, he'll often share his raw recordings with the Cornell Macaulay Library, the largest natural sound archive in the world, to be used by researchers. Though the thousands of recordings he has collected over the years may sound similar to the untrained ear, he says each one is its own little clue about an animal's needs and personality.

Mirin then crafts this raw data—the building blocks of an ecosystem—into a song that can get people excited about the world around them. He shares them in tours of communities near and far, to people of all ages.

He's been particularly stricken by children's reactions to his tunes, describing one particularly resonant encounter with a 12-year-old in saying, "After one of my shows as the artist in residence at the Bronx Zoo, he came up and told me that he went to the zoo a lot, and his friends made fun of him because they didn't understand why he liked to look at animals so much. 'I think that if more people could really see these animals and connect with them, they would realize that they have a lot to teach us,' he said. In such a succinct way, this kid described how important it is to connect to nature," Mirin recalled. "If we can bring nature to kids, we can instill so much connection. The next generation of conservationists will be our best solution to the environmental crisis."

As Mirin prepares for his upcoming journeys—to Honduras to collect frog sounds, and the Philippines to collect coral reef noises that will ultimately be turned into the soundtrack for an underwater documentary—he aims to create more work that catalyzes a deeper appreciation of all of the world's creatures.

"Humans like to think we're special all the time—and sometimes we are!—but I'd say no more or less special than other organisms. The way we achieve our greatest height as a species is by making connections with other creatures. What a waste it would be to not ask those questions, to not explore what animals have to teach us."

Next up: Check out how this photographer creates her own incredible brand of environmental art.

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