In Pursuit of the Ivory-bill

Summer 2005
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has a long history of bringing cutting-edge technology to recording, archiving, and researching animal sounds. Seventy years ago, and again today, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has inspired us to push the limits of that technology to document rare and elusive wildlife.

In 1935, Lab of Ornithology founder Arthur “Doc” Allen and his sound-recording partner, Peter Paul Kellogg, brought state-of-the-art equipment to record the ivory-bill for the first time in the Singer Tract in Louisiana. At the time, magnetic recording tape had not yet been invented, and “state-of-the-art” meant a custom-built rig that used an early optical scheme to record sound onto 35mm movie film.

The equipment filled a medium-sized truck for transport from Ithaca, New York, to Louisiana. Once there, two mules hauled the gear in a farm wagon for several miles into the swamp. The resulting five-minute recording, one of the earliest sound recordings in what is now the Lab’s Macaulay Library, has been critical to search efforts decades later. Without this one recording, the recent acoustic search for the ivory-bill would have been impossible, because neither the humans nor the sound detection software would have known what to listen for.
Today, the Lab brings together a unique constellation of resources under one roof. The Bioacoustics Research Program houses a staff of engineers, computer programmers, and biologists who together develop and apply new technologies—such as ARUs and XBAT software—for using sound as a tool to study threatened and endangered species.

The Macaulay Library, first established by Allen and Kellogg as the Library of Natural Sounds, provides critical comparative material for identifying sounds recorded in the field. With the conversion of the entire Macaulay collection to digital format (currently 35 percent completed), this material is rapidly retrievable, and more valuable than ever before.

These programs, combined with the Lab’s conservation programs and ornithological expertise, enable us to build upon the foundation built by Doc Allen and his pioneering colleagues, as we look toward the future of protecting the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

 - Russ Charif