Friday, 19 July 2013

Where birds never sing ...

Grey Wagtail I sometimes look at old photos of myself and cringe. It's not the hopelessly unfashionable clothes -I still ignore fashion now. No, it's the thought of how naive I was then. I remember some of the early anomalous investigations I was involved in, when I first took up paranormal research. Like many people new to the field, I had lots of ideas about what I was likely to find, drawn mostly from books (this was before the internet and even DVDs). These ideas turned out to be mostly wrong! It was the start of a very long learning process.

In one early case I was told about an area of a wood where wildlife was reported to be habitually silent. Interestingly, I've heard this claim made about other places since. It is, according to conventional wisdom, often taken as a sign that the place is 'special', possibly haunted or subject to some other paranormal activity. So, naturally, I went along to see for myself. Sure enough, the area indicated seemed uncannily quiet during my visit. Nearby areas, in contrast, appeared to contain the 'normal' noises you might expect when visiting a wood.

This all happened several years before I took up birdwatching. So, at the time, I knew next to nothing about what factors might affect whether birds might be singing, for instance. I now realise that things like habitat, time of year, time of day, weather and so on, all have a major influence on how noisy wildlife might be in a particular place and time. But what about my observation that nearby areas appeared 'normal' at the same time? Well, firstly, I may well have been influenced by expectation. I may have unconsciously 'tried harder' to hear things in 'normal' areas to confirm the exciting anomaly. Secondly, there may have been a perfectly good ecological reason for the difference. For instance, the density of animal territories varies according to the suitability of the habitat for a particular species. In areas with smaller territories there are more animals around so you are more likely to hear them call. So, an area where animals make little noise may simply be one of large territories, typically because of poorer habitat. And this difference may not be obvious to the untrained eye.

What started as a possible sign of something paranormal has now become a technical question that can be settled by science. And that was something I didn't get in those early days. I was too eager, in those days, to find something that didn't make immediate obvious sense, try a few simple tests for natural explanations, and then label it an anomaly. And what if I'd never become a birder? I might still have little idea about the perfectly natural reasons for variations in the frequency of animal calls across areas of a wood.

I now think that discovering an apparent anomaly is not the end of the investigation process but merely its beginning. If I can't see any natural explanation for a reported phenomenon, it usually just means I just haven't done enough research or talked to the right experts yet. It's taken a long time to realise that paranormal research is a lot more complicated than it, at first, appears!

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