Listening to Birds: Part 1 by John Cline

This article was written by author and Travis Audubon member, John Cline. John works at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at University of Texas at Austin. “Listening to Birds” has been divided into four sections and the next installment will be posted in a week.

Each generation is surrounded by its own particular soundscape. These soundscapes are so integrated into our day-to-day life that they often pass unnoticed. Within most readers’ lifetimes, once common sounds like the squelch of a 56k dial-up modem have passed into the same oblivion occupied by the sound of steam engine whistles and the hiss of gaslight-illuminate streets. In another generation or two, it’s possible to imagine that the cadence of pistons firing within an internal combustion engine, too, shall pass, as electric cars become the norm. The act of preserving a disappearing soundscape has only recently been given its own name: phonography. But in practice, such efforts have a long—if often obscure—history. The rationale for such recordings has been varied, from acoustic studies of extreme natural events like volcanoes and hurricanes to a nostalgic desire to keep something of the sound of bygone locomotives. The latter, driven by hobbyists or not, is (or should be) as significant a part of historical documentation as the use of photographs. The impulse itself is akin to the 20th century scramble to record what remained of the world’s human musical traditions in the face of mass media. Those types of recordings emanated from a 19th century interest in folkways. Phonography, which concerns itself with non-human sounds, if occasionally man-made, comes from a burgeoning ecological consciousness that also traces itself back to the 19th century. And when it comes to documentation of this type, there is perhaps no greater imperative than the preservation of the sounds of animals, especially those threatened with extinction.

Most animals, even fish, engage in some form of vocalization. It’s no accident that “Save the Whales” campaigns gained traction after Roger Payne released Songs of the Humpback Whale in 1970, given that a voice is perhaps the strongest point of cross-species identification between humans and animals. Even our primeval fear of predators could be assuaged, in part, by something like the 1971 Robert Redford-narrated The Language and Music of the Wolves in the service of environmental activism. But by far the most common forms of animal phonography are those that match the metaphors we use for own, human voices: frogs and birds. We croak, and we sing. Both have a recorded history that dates back to the 1930s, but of the two recordings of birdsong have always been the most prevalent. It’s possible that this fact cannot be extracted from the comparative pleasantness of birdsong compared to frog croak. But the history environmental activism in the U.S. is inextricable tied to the rise of bird watchers—a group far more numerous than amateur herpetologists. The ability to recognize bird species by sound alone is not only beneficial to the individual bird watcher in terms of identification, it’s also integral to the proliferation of training materials produced by professional ornithologists who needed the assistance of those people who craned their necks to locate creatures both common and rare. Without the data that these amateurs provided, we would know far less about the sound of the world around us before it disappears. What follows is a small slice of the larger history of phonography, told through the story of pioneer recordists of birdsong and gleaned from the sounds they preserved and gifted back to the world.

Out Our Backdoor
Sitting at my kitchen table, surrounded by stacks of antique field guides and a crate of birdsong records, I can look out the window to the arbor of bittersweet which through the day serves as a perch for the spring returnees to my prairie home: Red-winged Blackbirds and, this year, a particularly fat bunch of robins with their whistled bursts of rising and falling intonation. The annual migrations bring with them an explosion of sound, and yet very few people now can surefootedly identify which particular bird is catching their ear, aside from some of the most common of species. Neither could they in the past. This problem of auditory identification has plagued the nation’s ornithologists from the first days of birding in North America in the early 19th century. Instructional material to counter this began with the work of the Scotsman Alexander Wilson and the Creole Frenchman John James Audubon in the United States around that time, and has persisted through the leather-bound books in my kitchen, which began appearing in the 1880s, right up to the latest editions of Peterson’s or Sibley’s guides with their modern, laminated covers and water-resistant pages.

The history of studying the sounds of birds is nearly as old as the study of birds on this continent.  Although he is primarily remembered for his watercolors, Audubon actually wrote individual essays in Birds of America to accompany each species, most of which attempt to describe their song, or, occasionally, lack thereof. Of the Barn Owl, Audubon writes: I am not aware that it ever emits any cry or note, as other Owls are wont to do; but it produces a hollow hissing sound, continued for minutes at a time, which has always remind me of that given out by an opossum when about to die by strangulation.

In considerably less brutal language, the first wave of field guide authors in the 1880s like Florence Merriam Bailey would attempt to express birdsong in words. She notes, of the robin, “His voice is a strong clear treble, loud and cheerful, but he is not a musician, and has no one set song. His commonest call has two parts, each of three notes run together; the first with a rising, the last with a falling inflection, like, tril-la-ree, tril-la-rah; tril-la-ree, tril-l-rah.” Within that passage the two primary modes of translating birdsong into text are apparent. The first relies on a rough musical analogy, while the second is a phonetic rendering—not unlike the onomatopoeic named Whippoorwill. While the latter tradition continues, references to musical notes have tapered off, most likely due to a decline in amateur musicking. Victorian women in plumed hats, likely to have a piano in their parlors, were the target audiences for those early field guides; the connection between the two is manifest in the title of Bailey’s 1889 Birds Through an Opera Glass. Like her birding guide author peers Mabel Osgood Wright and Olive Thorne Miller, Bailey was writing in part to dissuade women in the late Victorian era from resigning birds to their fate at the milliner’s hands by encouraging active observation of living creatures: We are so in the habit of focusing our spyglasses on our human neighbors that it seems an easy matter to label them and their affairs, but when it comes to birds,—alas! Not only are there legions of kinds, but, to our bewildered fancy, they look and sing and act exactly alike. Yet though our task seems hopeless at the outset, before we recognize the conjurer a new world of interest and beauty has opened before us.

The decline of the parlor music tradition was tied to the rise of mechanical recordings in the years between the Gilded Age introduction of the gramophone and the “Roaring” 20s, and among the many musical fads that swept the country in those years—Hawaiian guitar, early jazz and blues, hillbilly music, etc.—there was a sudden vogue for people capable of mimicking birdsong by whistling. Performers adept in this peculiar art were popular on both the vaudeville stage and on phonographic records. While most of them took considerable liberties with their imitations for the sake of demonstrating a novel virtuosity, a few, like Edward Avis and Charles Kellogg, had a more scientific bent. Avis was known to perform for Audubon Societies around the country in addition to the vaudeville circuit, while Kellogg’s mimicry was a part of his broader career as a naturalist. This was the man who built his famous automobile from a hollowed-out Redwood trunk, which he drove around the U.S. to draw attention to the destruction of California’s primeval forests. The 78 rpm records left behind by these men tended to eschew the strings-and-horns orchestral accompaniment favored by their peers in order to foreground the birdsong in question.

While Avis and Kellogg left behind a recorded legacy of birdsong imitation, among professional ornithologists perhaps the most widely respected mimics in the early 20th century was Louis Agassiz Fuertes, whose name lives on, though solely in the realm of avian artistry, for his remarkable ear for identifying birds by their songs alone. He performed for everyone from professors to Boy Scout troops in Ithaca. With his friend Dr. Arthur A. Allen, universally known as “Doc”, Fuertes spotted a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in 1909 in the forest near Cornell University’s campus. This site became “Sapsucker Woods,” and would eventually become the home of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It was there that the history of recording real birdsong began.