Readers of a certain age may recall the old Fox-Case Movietone newsreels shown before feature films. Though silent at first, the films later featured sound, including a clipped, ponderous narration of recent events. That breakthrough in newsreel sound was also a watershed event for ornithology. The turning point came on May 18, 1929, in a park just down the road from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.
In 1929, Fox Movietone News purchased the rights to a new technology developed at Case Research Laboratories in Auburn, New York: an optical method of recording sound waves onto film. Excited by the possibilities, someone suggested recording a singing bird. Macaulay Library archive audio curator Greg Budney says the company turned to Cornell ornithology professor and Lab founder Arthur Allen for help.
"The story goes that Fox-Case Movietone asked Allen if he could bring a few birds to the studio for them to record," Budney says. "Allen invited them to bring their equipment to Ithaca to film wild birds." Allen helped Fox Movietone to film and record the sounds of a House Wren, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and a Song Sparrow in Ithaca’s Stewart Park—the first wild recordings of any North American bird.
"I can imagine this was a pretty exciting event," says Budney, "to actually capture the voices of birds and be able to play them back. I'm sure Allen and Lab-cofounder Peter Paul Kellogg quickly realized the tremendous educational value and research potential."
They did indeed. Allen and his Cornell engineering colleagues set to work developing technology to build on the Fox Movietone idea and use it for bird and animal study. There were challenges.
"Early microphones were not very sensitive," Budney explains. "You had to put the microphone right next to the bird. Today we can selectively record an individual with parabolas that amplify sound and directional microphones. In these ground-breaking recordings one also hears clicks, pops, and hissing, noise that was inherent in early recording systems. Even so, the Stewart Park recordings are remarkable for their time."
The experiment led to Allen's 1935 expedition to record the sounds of vanishing North American wildlife. Allen and Kellogg's recordings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana are the only positively identified recordings of that species’ voice.
In the 80 years since that fateful day in Stewart Park, Budney says there has been an explosion in documenting and studying the sounds of nature. The Macaulay Library archive now holds more than 175,000 individual recordings of more than 9,000 species of birds, mammals, and insects. "Doc" Allen would have been pleased.
"He was dedicated to educating the public and I think he’d be thrilled with the outreach that’s possible today," Budney says. "With the click of a mouse, anyone can access sounds in the archive. From locations ranging from a field in the midwestern U.S. to deep within the Amazon basin, to the Himalayas, the Macaulay Library offers a fantastic window into nature, open to everyone."