Listening to Birds: Part 2 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.

The Scramble for Audio
Perhaps inspired by their friend Louis Agassiz Fuertes’ death in 1927, Doc Allen, Peter Paul Kellogg who was a young graduate student, and Albert Brand, a former stockbroker turned “special student” began work towards the production of the first in-the-field recordings of birds. They were motivated by the fact that, while auditory knowledge of birdsong of the kind possessed by their late colleague was highly desirable, it required an incredible amount of time to master. Furthermore, as most species of birds are not present year round, one had to re-hone one’s ears every spring. Then, birds are often easier to hear than to see, especially in underbrush, and nocturnal birds are all but invisible. And most importantly for professional scientists, certain species that appear visually identical could be definitively separated in the taxonomy based on differences in their songs. One bird’s place in the Empidonax genus had puzzled ornithologists since Audubon, until the Lab detected a very slight divergence between their songs; “Traill’s Flycatcher” is now separated into two, Alder Flycatcher and Willow Flycatcher.

It is useful to consider the early work of Allen, Kellogg, and Brand in the context of the genesis of the practice of “field recording.” There are illuminating parallels to Alan Lomax’s far more famous contemporary work on rural musical traditions. Having inherited a scholarly legacy of written transcription stretching back to the 19th century via ballad collectors like James Francis Child, Cecil Sharp, and his own father, John A. Lomax, the younger Lomax took advantage of the advances in recording technology to document sounds that were of little commercial interest to the major recording companies of the time but—because of the rapid urbanization then taking place—threatened with cultural extinction; the result is that much of the Library of Congress’ collection of American music is either directly or indirectly his work. While advances in microphone and recording technologies opened up the possibility of documenting sounds as never before, the actual process presented challenges to field recordists that studio engineers, with their controlled environments, were not subject to: the outside world is sonic chaos. This was doubly true for the trio at Cornell, since even imprisoned singers like Leadbelly were more likely to cooperate with the man with the microphone than a warbler. Lomax dealt with this by welding 500lb machines to his car, which lathed sound directly to aluminum disks, and driving out to the where the birds would gather. The quality of all recordings was still marred by the factory standards of recording equipment, which, then as now, were set to maximize those frequencies most common to human speech and music, not animal communication. In a way, the technologies of the future were making it hard for both Lomax and the Lab to complete their basic goal: to make a record of the world before it disappeared.

It was Albert Brand who was the strongest force among the three in the early stages of recording birds at the Lab. Historical accounts published by Cornell University recount an exchange where Allen states his desire to purchase a recording of birdsong, and finding that only the recordings of imitators like Edward Avis and Charles Kellogg existed, resolving to use his considerable personal fortune to produce exactly that. He then tried to convince his friend David Sarnoff, the head of RCA, to assist in his endeavor only to be rebuffed with a “You bring your birds into my studio.”

Brand, Allen, and Kellogg were at a loss. They couldn’t just stick a recorder into the trunk of a Ford as Lomax had, since birds don’t always congregate near roadways and cannot usually be coaxed to come closer to the microphone. Their equipment needed to be much more portable. Luckily, totally by accident, Brand and the rest were introduced to the optical soundtrack technology from movie film in 1929 when a Fox-Case Movietone crew came to Ithaca and assisted them in recording of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a House Wren, and a Song Sparrow. Optical soundtracks use a portion of the 35mm filmstrip to encode light information that is played back as sound—not completely unlike a CD player. In spite of Brand’s personal wealth, optical soundtrack equipment was beyond his means for the time being, and the Lab would have to wait.

The greater obstacle to recording birdsong with any fidelity, though, lay in the microphone. While most microphones are in some sense “directional,” there were none available in the early ‘30s that were capable of isolating sound at any great distance. A student named Peter Keane solved this problem by suggesting placing the microphone at the center of a parabolic reflector, which he had encountered through a physics professor who had one stored in his attic – a relic of WWI experiments that involved attempts to detect of airplane attacks ahead of time. Keane and Kellogg tinkered with various materials until they arrived, in 1932, at a prototype that met their specifications in terms of weight and concentration of sonic energy. Although modified considerably over the years, this piece of equipment remains a staple in every nature recordist’s toolkit.

Having made the necessary technical breakthroughs to produce quality field recordings of birdsong, Albert Brand set about accumulating high-quality recordings of the songs of as many species as he could manage. In 1934, he made his recordings publicly available as Songs of the Wild Birds, a book with two cardboard-and-acetate disks tucked into the back containing thirty-five examples, graced with illustrations by George Miksch Sutton. He wrote that, “with the aid of records of the actual singing bird, any one, whether he [sic] is musical or not, as long as he is not entirely tone deaf and in addition has no sense of rhythm whatever, anyone who cares to devote a little time to it, can soon learn to identify not only birds that are generally thought to be common, but many others that we are told are rare and unusual.” Initially this was accomplished by means of narrated surveys that provided an auditory parallel to the printed field guides.  With Brand around, Cornell had become the largest repository of such material in the world.

In 1935, Brand’s expedition to the American South yielded the first images and recordings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a species that has barely hovered above extinction for more than a century. His and others’ recordings formed the basis of basis of American Bird Songs, a six-volume 78 rpm album released in 1942. Although Brand had died in 1940, this record set, released through the newly formed Albert R. Brand Bird Song Foundation, provided a crucial source of financial support for the Lab as royalties trickled in over the next ten to fifteen years. Brand had been lucky (or canny) enough to sell off his seat on the New York Stock Exchange just before the Crash of ’29, and had underwritten so many Cornell projects and expeditions, was crucial to the survival of the Lab even in death. Like Fuertes before him, Brand’s legacy would loom large over the ensuing years at Cornell—especially in the work of his friends Doc Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg.