Ivory-bill Sounds Placed in National Recording Registry

June 10, 2009
by Pat Leonard

Top: Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Singer Tract, Louisiana, 1935. Bottom: The film setup used to capture the ivory-bill recordings placed in the National Recording Registry.

When Cornell Lab of Ornithology founder Arthur Allen and fellow researcher Peter Paul Kellogg recorded the call of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 1935, they made history. To this day it is the only confirmed recording of the bird.

That historic recording is now part of the National Recording Registry maintained by the Library of Congress. The registry was created by Congress in 2000, "to maintain and preserve sound recordings and collections of sound recordings that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant..."

Collecting the 1935 ivory-bill recording was no mean feat. A few years earlier, Fox-Case Movietone experimented with a brand new film technology using optical waves to capture the songs of wild birds in North America for the first time. Allen assisted the company in making the recordings in Ithaca, New York's, Stewart Park. Excited by the new technology, Allen launched an expedition to document vanishing North American bird species. His team found and recorded a pair Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in an area of old-growth forest in Louisiana called the Singer Tract.

The Allen ivory-bill recordings are still being used by scientists conducting the first range-wide search for any remaining ivory-bills throughout the southeastern part of the United States. The recordings have been used to train searchers in what to listen for, to compare with new recordings made in the field, and to develop pattern-recognition software so that computers can scan thousands of hours of field recordings to find similar sounds. The recordings can then be examined by a human analyst.

"The superb recordings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker made by Arthur Allen and co-workers in 1935 might be the most famous natural sound recordings ever made," says Cornell Lab director Dr. John Fitzpatrick. "The haunting sounds of this majestic woodpecker have become tragic symbols of biodiversity loss."