Sounds We Protect

The natural and cultural sounds in national parks awaken wonder, and raise awareness about our surroundings. The NPS regards these sounds as part of a web of natural and cultural resources that must be protected.
A White-crowned Sparrow sings while perched on a branch.
Bird song is one of the natural sounds protected in national parks.

NPS Photo.

Natural Sounds

Natural sounds are vital to park ecosystems and to your experience in a park. National Park Service Management Policies require NPS to restore and manage park acoustical environments and soundscapes (see Understanding Sound for definitions).

Sound is important to wildlife for:
  • Animal communication
  • Territory establishment, finding good habitat
  • Courtship and mating
  • Nurturing and protecting young
  • Predation and predator avoidance
  • Effective use of habitat
Have you ever heard the reverberating thud of male bighorn sheep butting heads, the eerie howl of a wolf, or the slap of a beaver tail on the water's surface? The visitor who experiences sounds like these often cherishes the memory for a lifetime. They are potent reminders of the ancient rituals preserved in our natural spaces and serve as key examples of the richness of park acoustical environments.

Most national park visits introduce us to the subtler sounds of animals going about their daily lives: bird songs, wind through grasses and trees, frog croaks, and chirping insects. Such sounds, while more common than a wolf howl, are a captivating and memorable part of a park experience. Many animals are heard before they are seen. While most amphibians, for example, are almost impossible to spot, their calls travel for miles. Standing in the midst of the deafening trill of spring peepers is a riveting reminder that wetlands are critical habitat for amphibians. What else do sounds convey about their ecosystems?

Did you know?

  • When returning to the colony with food, a sea lion mother finds her pup by recognizing its voice.
  • Rattlesnakes shake their tails to alert intruders to their presence, saving them the trouble of an attack.
  • Killdeer use a distinct, high-pitched trill, while faking a broken limb, to distract predators from their nests.
  • Many bird songs can be described in human phrases. For example, the American Goldfinch call sounds like the words "potato chip!" and Chickadees helpfully call out the sound of their own name, "chicka-dee-dee-dee!"
  • Male cicadas produce the loudest sounds in the insect world. Entomologists believe that the sound protects these insects by hurting predators' ears.
Enjoy a range of intriguing sounds recorded in parks and featured on our Sound Gallery page. And learn how noise can be disruptive to wildlife and other park resources: Effects of Noise.
A man wearing Native American clothing plays a wooden flute into a microphone.
Traditional music is part of the cultural soundscape at many parks.

NPS Photo by Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

Cultural Sounds

Cultural sounds reinforce a sense of pride in place — a connection to heritage, and the awareness that human sounds, too, are integral to national parks. Many man-made sounds have embedded themselves in the American psyche, and echo significant movements in the country's development. The whistle of a train, the clang of mission bells, Native American drumming, and the crack of musket fire are all imbued with meaning about the American experience.

Many cultural sounds are symbolic of a park's relevance. The deafening roar of the fabric looms in the factories at Lowell National Historical Park, for example, conveys the loss of autonomy experienced by factory workers who left the farm. The resonant clang of an iron spike driven into a rail at Golden Spike National Historic Site can depict a nation linked for the first time by the railroad, while the piercing screech of sirens at Oklahoma City National Memorial evokes the sense of a country torn apart by terror. The sounds of gunshots and human cries contrasted with the silence of an empty prairie at Bear Paw Battlefield are haunting reminders of the anguish of the Nez Perce as they ceased their struggle against the white man.

Music has an undisputed ability to transport people through time and space and recreate a mood. Additionally, many pivotal moments in U.S. history are defined by a musical style. An interpretive tour of the Vietnam War Memorial might be enhanced with a recording of conflict-driven songs from the 1960s. Recordings of Native American tribal music help set a jubilant or reverent atmosphere, and the lighthearted sounds of ragtime piano can conjure the robust spirit of the gold rush days.

What sounds are meaningful to you? We'd love to hear your story!