Listening to Birds: Part 3 by John Cline

Prairie Warbler, Michael Stubblefield

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.

Putting the Birds Out
Much of the Lab’s work went on hold during WWII as professors and students went to work in various capacities toward the war effort. Then, the postwar years saw an explosion of field recording at the Lab, thanks to lighter equipment and the improved fidelity of sound afforded by new, Nazi-invented magnetic tape, which American soldiers plundered and brought back to the US. But what was available to amateurs in the public at large? Brand’s books and the American Bird Songs album suggest that the personnel at the Lab had a vested interest in disseminating their material not only to fellow ornithologists but to amateur birders, too. Working with the publisher Houghton Mifflin, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology put out more than a dozen individual releases of birdsong between 1942 and 1967, and several more recordings issued in conjunction with either the National Geographic Society or the National Audubon Society. These disks could be acquired in record stores or by mail. In many cases, it’s nearly impossible to find a specific release date for the Lab’s recordings—perhaps because, unlike pop music, birdsong doesn’t have a limited shelf life. During this same period, the Lab collaborated with famed field guide author Roger Tory Peterson to produce audio accompaniments to his A Field Guide to the Birds and A Field Guide to Western Birds.

The Lab’s own commercial releases (which were always only a tiny proportion of the archive) slowed down considerably after the mid-‘60s. Its last major release before transitioning to cassette, CD, and—ultimately—digital recordings was a joint project with the National Audubon Society: Beautiful Bird Songs of the World (1977, two 12” LP set). Although the Lab’s personnel had pioneered the recording of birdsong, by the 1960s there were others active in the field, including William W.H. Gunn of the Federation of Toronto Naturalists and Donald J. Borror of The Ohio State University, as well independent operators like Jerry and Norma Stillwell. The Rhode Island micro label Droll Yankee, whose catalog also includes field recordings of the ambient sounds wooden boat fishing villages, also released a series of birdsong documents from New England.

All told, there are, by my count, more than three-dozen individual, commercial birdsong recordings released during in this period. Of these, it’s clear after listening through each of them that there are three distinct types: narrated surveys, thematic releases, and audio portraits. Narrated surveys  — including all versions of American Bird Songs and most of the Lab’s releases before 1955, as well the LPs accompanying the Peterson guides and the entirety of Gunn’s (except A Day in Algonquin Park), Borror’s, and the Stillwells’ releases — correspond most closely to conventional field guides: a species is announced and an example of its song is played. Thematic records come housed inside color booklets, like Song Birds of America in Color, Sound and Story. Both thematic and narrated surveys present birdsong in abbreviated form, punctuated by human voices identifying the species in question, a structure that emphasizes function, has been carried over into the digital realm on the Lab’s website, which allocates audio clips to the pages dedicated to individual birds.

Audio portraits like A Day in Algonquin Park attempt to approximate the experience of actually being in the field, among the birds. They lack an intervening voice of authority in favor of presenting a broader soundscape. We can focus our minds on certain events, but the other sounds are always present too. In many respects, A Day in Algonquin Park and a similar, Cornell-produced LP like An Evening in Sapsucker Woods prefigure the 1970s advent of New Age recordings of “natural” soundscapes intended for relaxation.

None of these recordings, regardless of type, ever warrants a mention in any of the half-dozen or so recent histories of North American birding, from Scott Weidensaul’s 1997 Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding to Thomas R. Dunlap’s 2011 In the Field, Among the Feathered: A History of Birders & Their Guides. Considering the sheer number of releases and their ubiquity in both the “Misc.” sections of record stores and on eBay, this seems a striking oversight. Perhaps we can blame it on the 1990s, when university libraries’ divested themselves of their vinyl collections en masse. But it’s also indicative of a deeper conflict felt by birders between the importance of experience, of communing with nature, and their own historic dependence on scientific knowledge – both on the taxonomies that structure field guides, and on various forms of technology, whether optical enhancements like binoculars or high-tech audio recordings. Without these technologies, from Florence Merriam Bailey’s opera glasses to the Lab’s parabolic microphones, individual birders would be figuratively “lost in the woods,” and, as a group, birders would be less able to make crucial contributions to ecology.

Cooperative Avian Education
Although birding in the field is primarily practiced in solitude—exemplified by legendary personalities like John James Audubon or Louis Agassiz Fuertes—or, at most, by small groups, bird watchers in North America have been engaged in a collective enterprise since the first societies devoted to the hobby were organized in the 1880s—around the same time the first, leather-bound field guides began appearing. Driven by the desire for scientific knowledge, a concern for the environment, and, for some, a hobbyist’s obsessiveness, birders signed up and quietly belonged to groups like the Audubon Society, at both the national and local level. They recorded sightings in logbooks stationed in parks, and shared tips and stories in newsletters and magazines. This may surprise non-birders, especially today when the most famous bird watcher, Jonathan Franzen, is prone to depicting his own activities with an individualistic mixture of guilt and competitive envy; when he’s not expressing his supposed shame on camera in Birders: The Central Park Effect, he’s agonizing over whether or not he’s correctly identified a rare duck in his essay “My Bird Problem.” But if you spend any time at a local Audubon Society gathering it’s clear that Franzen’s outlook is anomalous. So are fanatical “Big Year” types like the ones documented in Mark Obmascik’s book of the same title, some of whom end up the subject of Hollywood movies. Far more common are the local experts who lead inexperienced groups through public preserves and organize parties whose sole purpose is to band the legs of the little birds they catch, and release them back into the air from fine mesh nets.

It can’t be denied that there’s a longstanding ambivalence felt by professional ornithologists for amateur birders. Still, as Mark Barrow notes in A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology After Audubon, already in the early 20th century, “Scientists had long depended on networks of collectors to document new species and their ranges,” even as they were wary of the accuracy of some of these same individuals sight records. By the 1930s although such collecting had come to an end, the amateurs’ will to contribute did not. If anything, Roger Tory Peterson’s revolutionary guides, the decision by Allen and Kellogg to forego “shotgun ornithology” by the Lab—the customary practice, from Audubon to Sutton, of shooting birds in order to preserve their skins for reference—in favor of photographic and auditory documentation, and, after WWII, the surplus of military binoculars actually increased the potential role of amateurs in the overall field.

As noted previously, there was enough public interest by the 1950s for Houghton Mifflin to invest in thematic releases like Doc Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg’s Song Birds of America in Color, Sound and Story, which Roger Tory Peterson himself describes in the Foreword as having “made it possible […] to hear authentic recordings of bird songs while examining, at the same time accurate color photographs of the same birds or reading about the habits of these birds,” a synthesis underscored by the blurb proclaiming it to be “the first color, sound and story introduction to songbirds ever published,” Followed by titles like Bird Songs in Your Garden and Dawn in a Duck Blind, a synthesis between the written, the visual, and the auditory had finally been achieved.

There is no doubt that these texts seem primitive in an age of multimedia web content, but it’s worth considering that, in analog form, they’re capable of accomplishing the same basic goal: multimodal learning. Allen and Kellogg’s practical experiences teaching ornithology to students of all ages doubtless contributed to their desire to produce texts like these. And while there was certainly an altruistic element to this endeavor – the expansion of interest in birds specifically and ecology more generally – the reality is also that scientists like them relied on amateurs to collect data.

The term “crowdsourcing” is abuzz these days, with some experts contending that true crowdsourcing has only been made possible by the Internet. This is hard to square that with the actual history of interdependence between ornithologists and amateur birders. One such expert is Daren C. Babham. For the record, Brabham’s criteria are:
1. an organization that has a task that it needs performed,
2. a community (crowd) that is willing to perform the task voluntarily,
3. an online environment that allows the work to take place and the community to interact with the organization, and
4. mutual benefit for the organization and the community.

Given the considerable number of birders who’ve participated in various “citizen science” projects like Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, an annual census conducted by members since 1900, the volunteers required by #2 are in no ways lacking. Brabham’s specification of “an online environment” in #3 is the biggest catch to describing the relationship between ornithologists and birders as crowdsourcing, but this seems to be due as much to a bias against older types of communication networks as anything else. After all, people like Doc Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg were authorities both within the Lab and active in birding communities like the Audubon Society, giving them access to a nation-wide group of birding enthusiasts connected by newsletters, magazines, and personal correspondence; in practical terms, the only difference between a stamp and a modem is speed. But birding as a form of “citizen science” type crowdsourcing even overcomes Brabham’s exclusionary criteria with more recent initiatives like the joint Cornell Lab of Ornithology/National Audubon Society eBird project. Launched online in 2002 to help analyze bird distribution and abundance, eBird brings together scientists and amateurs the same way they’ve always interacted, albeit much more quickly and with massively more data available. Rather than the relatively few commercial recordings of multimodal works like Song Birds of America in Color, Sound and Story available in the LP era, today the entirety of the Lab’s archive is digitized, for free, at The audio samples on the site go all the way back to Albert Brand. Similar online archives exist for Donald J. Borror’s collection at The Ohio State University. And just like in the 1930s, there are parallels to Alan Lomax’s work via the Association for Cultural Equity and their online database, which has made publicly available all of the recordings, photographs, and films that he generated over his long career.

Finally, if in Brand’s original vision of the place of birdsong recordings their use was limited to at-home ear training for novices and winter conditioning for the more advanced birder, the mobility problem inherent to the record player has been overcome just like the recording device through downloadable audiovisual guides for use on handheld devices like iPhones. See a bird and want to verify its species by song? Just pop in your earphones.