Scott Whittle: Birder & Co-Founder of the Terra Project – Ep. 86

About Scott Whittle & Terra Project:

On this show, I’ve given you boatloads of examples of people who turned their unique passion into a career. Today we tap into the wide world of birding with my guest, Scott Whittle. Scott has turned his passion for birds into a start-up with far-reaching implications for conservation and human wellbeing.

His company, Terra, allows you to listen to the birds outside your home and identify them, including migratory patterns and more. Through his device, you can enjoy the sounds of nature in your own home or learn a ton more about the world all around you. If I’m underselling this just wait until you find out the full scope of his idea.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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1:38 – “I was photographing in Prospect Park…and I noticed a bird standing by the lake there that didn’t make any sense. It was black with a white bill with these bizarre giant webbed feet. And I thought, ‘oh, that must be a zoo escape or something’… I got a little book on birds and looked at it. And sure enough, it was a bird that was around there that I just had never noticed before. And then I started thinking, ‘what other birds are here?’ I started looking at them, photographing them, getting connected to some other bird watchers in the park.” 

2:26 – “Within six months, I did a Big Year in New York State, which means that I tried to see as many species as I could in New York State. I broke the record for that year, and then next year I started writing the Warbler Guide with a friend of mine…and I’m now working on a project called the Terra Project, whose aim is really to create these devices that will connect people to the natural environment around them and at the same time create a giant database for conservation.” 

5:00 – (Ross) [On birding] “They’ve got this giant community of people who really care very deeply about this. And what I kind of like about it the most is that it’s an excuse for people to get outside into the real world. It’s an excuse for people to celebrate the world that exists around them. And it’s a reminder, like you said at the very beginning, of how little we know and how little we care about the stuff that’s going on all around us, at all times…it’s this entire fascinating world that’s just out there for people to explore.” 

6:04 – “In the spring and fall when birds are migrating, a lot of birds migrate at night, and so this huge natural phenomenon is happening right over your head while you’re asleep. Even if you live in New York City, you have thousands of birds migrating over there…And nobody notices it because it’s at night and it’s subtle. But if you’re looking for it and you start to look for it, then you start to see it all over the place. And it’s a really cool experience to get connected to that.”

6:39 – “You get into the birds, and identifying them, but then you start to notice the plants and then you start to notice the insects, and then you start to notice all of the other animals and stuff that are involved in the whole ecosystem, and it really connects you. And for me, it’s almost a sort of spiritual connection. I mean, when I go outside and go birding or walk around in nature, I really feel grounded. I feel relaxed and I feel connected.”

9:05 – [On the origins of Terra] “A friend of mine, Mike Lanzone, runs a company called CTT, Cellular Tracking Technologies, here in Cape May…what we were doing was getting these five gallon buckets and we had a bunch of nerds in our room pouring concrete into that bucket and putting a little microphone stuck in there so it’d hold it. And then you take that bucket and you stick it up on your roof and it has a wire coming out of it so you can listen to whatever’s flying over…And then we were recording night flight calls, which are the sounds that birds make when they fly at night when they’re migrating.”

9:58 – “A couple of years ago, Mike came to me and said…..‘I really want to create a bunch of microphones out there across the country that will let us listen to these birds flying over’, which will be a huge benefit in terms of our understanding of what they’re doing, and also for conservation to adapt well to changes that they have because we’ll be able to listen and learn about migration in real time. So that means that we’ll literally be able to respond to it basically as it’s happening.”

11:18 – “Cornell University has a big ornithology department and they’re actually working with some buildings in Texas to predict when migration is heavy. They turn off the lights in the skyscrapers and what that does is it prevents window strikes. And that sounds like a small thing, but actually hundreds of millions of birds die from windows strikes in urban areas every year. So by turning off those lights, you’re saving tens or hundreds of thousands of birds. And if we can do that across the country, then we can really make an impact.”

18:17 – “Terra is a small device, about six inches across. It comes with a little stake so you can stick it in your garden, you can stick it on your wall or on your deck. And it has basically just a microphone and a radio receiver in it. So it does two things. One, it listens. And the other thing is it tries to pick up radio signals. The radio signals part of it is it’s picking up any tagged bird on a specific system that we work with. So any bird with one of those tags on it, it’ll actually ping off of Terra and let us know that it was there. But then the user can also follow it and say, ‘Oh, where is that bird been? Where is it going?’”

19:46 – “In addition to that, Terra is very special because unlike a lot of other birding tools, you don’t need to know anything about birds with Terra. You just stick it in your yard and it’ll actually start teaching you because it’s going to identify the birds that it hears. So it will say, ‘hey, did you know there’s two cardinals in your yard and four robins? And, did you know, last night there was the great crested flycatcher flew over and there’s a pair of Carolina wrens here.’ It’ll actually start tracking all the birds that are there. Ultimately, it’ll track other things like insects and frogs and anything that makes a sound.”

20:53 – “That’s the most important thing of this whole project, because it’s creating a community of people who are becoming more connected to their local environment…It’s right in your yard … if you’re personally connected to that, I believe that that’s going to change how you act in the world in terms of conservation and just protecting and being a good steward for all the animals and plants around us. So many of the things that I see that I think have a negative impact on the environment aren’t malicious at all. They just really come out of a lack of awareness of the impact that they have because that awareness is invisible to us.”

23:05 – “One of the issues, too, by the way, is privacy. So we are creating two things. One, the stream that you have is just for you – it’s encrypted, it’s just for you. The other thing is the identifications it does are done from little snippets of sound. So anything that goes up to a server is actually just little two-second clips. And so you can’t really listen to someone that way. So it protects that. In addition, we’re actually working on digital filters that will help us remove things like lawnmower sounds, human voices, car traffic.” 

25:42 – “I just read an article in National Geographic where they said the estimated world bird population is between 50 billion and 470 billion – so kind of a ridiculously wide number…the reason that data is important is because we’ll know right away when things are changing, for better or for worse. And so then we can go to the source and say, ‘okay, well, this population of warblers was flying from this area of Canada and they’ve decreased 50% this year. What’s happening?’…Have the data to go to the government and say, ‘we need to fix this’, because the government won’t do anything without data.”

27:20 – “We’ve seen a 30% decline in bird populations in the last 50 years. It’s a really incredible and frightening number to see just the overall population decrease like that. And I think that without responding to it more effectively, we’re really going to be in a crisis situation, not just for birds, but for wildlife and nature in general. So I’m hoping that this [Terra] will help contribute to helping that problem.” 

28:59 – “We’ve seen huge reductions in completely wild spaces, where you have just pure forests or natural areas, but what that’s been replaced by a lot of times is yards. And so if people actually manage their yards differently – instead of just planting grass maybe you plant a few native plants or plant a little patch of milkweed or put a tree there that’s local that will produce food for birds – you actually, on a larger scale, could create a counterbalance to all that removal of other wild spaces.” 

39:22 – “We’ve raised over $300,000. We have about 1500+ backers. We’re doing pre-sales right now. We’re creating production right now, but they’re not in stores or anything. They should be in stores, we’re hoping, by the end of 2022 and we will have a hard product in hand. But in the meantime, a lot of people have been really wonderful in supporting this dream, and they’ve made it possible for us to actually do it.” 

40:53 – “There’s a lot of papers actually about the positive effects of listening to natural sounds. A lot of mental health benefits, but actually, believe it or not, physical health benefits – they find that recovering from surgery, for example, listening to natural sounds can actually accelerate recovery, a whole bunch of other stuff. There’s a lot of legitimate peer-reviewed papers out there talking about that, and we are certainly really interested in working with people in assisted living, hospitals, schools. We just started talks with a group called Birdability, which is about helping people with disabilities get access to birds and birding.”

44:21 – “We’re in bodies, we’re not just brains…we have a long evolutionary history that has developed in terms of our connection to the natural world, and to the point where it’s almost bizarre that we’re talking about the natural world where it’s a separate thing. I mean, we sort of get in this state where we think we’re sort of separate from it. But I think that separation it takes something away from you. So we want to swing it the other way a little bit.” 

46:56 – [On the difference between a job and a mission] “As a rule, jobs traditionally have been more stable. So you can go, you get sort of told what you’re supposed to be doing, you get a regular salary and so on. So that’s actually kind of nice. But I think that having a mission gives you more of a sense of purpose. And it requires more of you in the sense of you really have to invent all this stuff from the ground up. I’ve learned a hundred things about business, and startups, and accounting, and graphic design, and marketing, and talking to people, and electronics all as a part of this project.”

48:42 – “For me, it’s the only way to go. And honestly, it’s really rewarding…We have one life, as far as we know, and one attempt to use these resources that we have and make something out of it. And I think that for me, I feel like my need to give, and also be connected, is something that I try to nourish and it’s something that’s been really rewarding for me.”

51:06 – “We get so few opportunities to actually do something meaningful in the world or to help other people in the world in a way that’s significant. And so I think when you see that opportunity, you should grab it because I think that it doesn’t come along very often. And if you don’t do it, it’ll be gone.”

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