In the warmer seasons and biomes of the Earth, birds envelop the sonic landscape with uniquely composed songs and calls that identify the species present, even if unseen. Bioacoustics and ornithological expert Juan Pablo Culasso has so refined his ability to recognize these sounds that he is now able to differentiate between 720 species of birds by ear. 29-year-old Culasso was born blind, though able to sense changes in light, and has always relied on his ears to explore the world around him. Culasso also possesses the rare gift of absolute, or perfect, pitch, which enables him to identify a particular note simply by hearing it. Through his unique abilities, Culasso can identify over 3,000 unique bird sounds.
Perfect pitch is less about the ear than it is about the brain’s capacity for identification and interpretation. “It’s not that these people hear more, they hear the same as anyone else,” says Alicia Munyo, head of the phonology department at Republica University in Montevideo, Uruguay. “It’s that their brain has a great capacity to interpret sounds and their nuances, much more than normal people do.” Culasso recalls his perfect pitch in childhood, in which he could identify the musical note for sounds made by stones tossed into the water. His father introduced his young son to the world of birds by reading aloud encyclopedia articles that were accompanied by audio cassettes of bird sounds.
Culasso, encouraged by field work with an ornithologist, began recording bird sounds as a teenager. “At that moment, I felt as if I had been doing this forever without knowing it. I fell in love with that task,” he says. Culasso has used his skills to produce nature documentaries, assist scientific studies, and in 2014, was granted a $45,000 prize from Nat Geo TV. Most of this money was invested in audio equipment, so that Culasso can better complete his work. He also recently completed a two month expedition in Antarctica.
“I keep adding sounds to my list,” he says. “In Antarctica, I recorded sea lions, seals and a melting iceberg.”