Listening to Birds: Part 4 by John Cline

Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Jim deVries

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 this is the final installment.

From Bird Science to the Art of Ecology
One wonders what the value of these old albums might be at this point. True, vinyl has made a comeback. But the practicality of an LP for ear training is considerably less than any of the contemporary formats. That leaves us to consider how these objects have passed from scientific realm to the aesthetic. By analogy, think the transformation undergone by Audubon’s watercolors in the past century and a half: from the standard of ornithological representation to a current appreciation primarily for their artistic qualities.

For example, a few weeks ago I bought an incredible 2’x4’ print of Great Snowy Egrets by Roger Tory Peterson, signed, numbered and framed. The guy sold it to me for $35, though it’s worth more like $500. He claimed it was “an Audubon,” despite the RTP signature at the bottom. My point is that, in the U.S. at least, any painting of a bird is automatically considered art, and the only bird artist everybody knows is Audubon. The thing is, though, almost nobody seems to remember that Audubon’s works were scientific documents first. At the same time, some of the finest scientific illustrations have always been appreciated for the aesthetic qualities as well; there are, for instance, some extraordinary examples in the libraries of the British royal family—not necessarily a group of hardcore botanists or ornithologists—including an incredibly well-preserved set of Mark Catesby’s watercolors for his 1747 Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands purchased by King George III in 1768 and housed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. Something like this may be an exceptional example within generalizable Enlightenment inclination among the educated of the 18th and 19th centuries toward the natural sciences, it may be because drawing was considered a crucial part of an education during the same period, and it may be because only people wealthy enough to collect conventional “artistic” paintings (like, say, J.M.W. Turner’s work) could also afford to shell out for a folio copy of Birds of America. I do know that Audubon’s art isn’t used in ornithological texts anymore, but originals are sold by Christy’s and Sotheby’s and cheap prints are hung in many, many homes of those with lesser means.

This process was already underway as Louis Agassiz Fuertes began exhibiting his first paintings in the 1890s, when ornithologists preferred their greater verisimilitude to actual living birds compared to the melodramatic contortions found in Audubon’s magisterial Birds of America plates. In the 1930s it was Fuertes’ greatest pupil, George Miksch Sutton, who realized that photography was rapidly displacing his craft as an integral part of the science of ornithology, especially among his colleagues at Cornell like Doc Allen. In recent years, that same quest for verisimilitude which won Fuertes and Sutton accolades, before advancements in telescopic lenses made photos standard in field guides, has given way yet again to a kind of hyperrealism in the work of Richard Crossley. Crossley, a British ornithologist, has generated considerable controversy among birders through his books on Eastern birds and raptors of North America, owing to their superimposition of individual birds seen from multiple perspectives on a single background.  As Zach Schwartz-Weinstein writes in his review for The New Inquiry of Crossley’s raptor book, “We are looking at the birds, but they aren’t looking at us, and they aren’t looking at each other. ‘The field’ here is as much a conscious aesthetic choice for Crossley as it is a natural backdrop on which to superimpose images of birds taken in a variety of different locations.” Even flipping through its pages, Schwartz-Weinstein’s observations are clear: Crossley’s striking photographs of hundreds of birds from a variety of angles, in different plumages, lighting conditions, stages of molt, and different activities are superimposed onto background landscape photographs which situate the birds in their natural habitat, a phrase whose vexed nature the book hints at by including shots of city bridges, active farms, trailer homes, parking lots, barbed wire, and lakeside McMansions. Even shots of hawks soaring against a generic blue sky are interrupted by jet contrails.

Although a more rudimentary form of this type of collage was used as far back as 1935 by Doc Allen in his images of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, as an identification tool Crossley’s book is certainly a paradigm shift. The collage reminds us of Kellogg’s essays (published in the late-‘50s) on the techniques necessary to record sounds in nature. He argued that it was far more prudent to isolate a single bird’s song and then add in additional birds or environmental sounds than it was to try and record everything at once. This is a tacit acknowledgement that records like An Evening in Sapsucker Woods and A Day in Algonquin Park are themselves fabricated audio collages. Unlike the 1952 Folkways LP The Sound of a Tropical Rainforest in America—produced for an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History by stitching together both authentic recordings from the Amazon basin and “rain” simulated by a shower head splashing on newspaper in a New York apartment—it’s reasonable to assume that the audio portrait work done by Kellogg and William W.H. Gunn involved sounds that were at least from the appropriate geographic space, even if they were not simultaneous events. And compared to the thematic or narrated survey types of birdsong records, the audio portraits offer the most pleasure to a listener seeking an aesthetic experience rather than scientific knowledge.

But at the same time, there’s an inevitable melancholy that accompanies older audio portraits. Because of the specificity of their place of recording, as listeners we cannot ever truly escape the knowledge that sounds we’re hearing on these old records, collaged or not, have been irrevocably altered by man-made changes to the environment. So listen close.