To a computer, it’s just a complex combination of ones and zeros. Decoded for our ears, it becomes wondrous sound—a symphony, or the song of a lark. Thanks to digital technology, recordings of bird, insect, mammal, fish, and amphibian voices in the Lab’s Macaulay Library will last virtually forever. It’s taken more than 12 years, but all archived reel-to-reel analog recordings going back to 1929 have now been digitized to the highest industry standards and made available online. It’s a major milestone.
“Our audio collection is the largest and the oldest,” explains Macaulay Library director Mike Webster. “Now, it’s also the most accessible. Having the collection digitized brings the Macaulay Library into the 21st century. Now we’re working to improve search functions and create tools people can use to collect recordings and upload them directly to the archive.”
The audio and video recordings are searchable and free to play online, whether to brush up on familiar sounds or to explore the nooks and crannies of the wider world. As a sort of sampler plate, we’ve compiled a list of seven great sounds plus a video—they’re listed at the end of this post.
The archive now contains about 150,000 audio recordings: 10 terabytes of data with a total run time of 7,513 hours (313 days). More than 7,000 species are represented, with a heavy emphasis on birds. But you’ll also find whales, elephants, frogs, tigers, primates, and more. New material is coming in all the time from recordists around the world, both amateur and professional.
In all, 18 audio archivists took part in digitizing the sounds. Archivist Martha Fischer takes the award for most clips: she handled more than 17,000 recordings since 2000. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Older tapes were often in poor condition. Saving a recording sometimes meant heating the tape in a vacuum oven to reseal shedding oxide particles and get perhaps one or two more passes through a playback machine. You might have only one chance to get it right.
It can be a strain to listen intensely all day. “I do get a little squirrely, sometimes,” Fischer said. “But it’s a nice feeling to know I’ve contributed to making all this material available to people.” But some moments transported her to another time and place. A dawn chorus recording featuring 19 bird species in Queensland, Australia, captured by recordist Eleanor Brown, is one of her favorites. Fischer also mentions recordings of the indri, a large lemur native to Madagascar, with an unforgettable voice (see list, below).
And sometimes archivists hear more than the intended target. “Snoring,” Fischer laughs. “I’ve heard dogs barking, construction, cars, chimps passing gas, and a lot of stomach rumblings.” Collecting the recordings can apparently be tiring, hungry work, too.
The archive cannot rest on its laurels however. In addition to collecting new material, the technology is always changing so even digitized material will likely have to be migrated to new media types in the future. What will remain the same, though, is the human need to listen and perhaps better understand the many creatures who share the planet with us.
“Sound is a huge component of most animals, including most vertebrates and insects, “Webster says. “I think you don’t really know an animal until you pay attention to the sounds it makes. I feel people are missing a lot about nature itself if they don’t experience it with their ears.”
A Sampler: Seven Top Sounds—Plus a Video
- Earliest recording: Cornell Lab founder Arthur Allen was a pioneer in sound recording. On a spring day in 1929 he recorded this Song Sparrow sounding much as they do today.
- Youngest bird: This clip from 1966 records the sounds of an Ostrich chick while it is still inside the egg—and the researchers as they watch.
- Liveliest wake-up call: A dawn chorus in tropical Queensland, Australia is bursting at the seams with warbles, squeals, whistles, booms, and hoots.
- Best candidate to appear on a John Coltrane record: The indri, a lemur with a voice that is part moan, part jazz clarinet.
- Most spines tingled: The incomparable voice of a Common Loon on an Adirondacks lake in 1992.
- Most likely to be mistaken for aliens arriving: Birds-of-paradise make some amazing sounds—here’s the UFO-sound of a Curl-crested Manucode in New Guinea.
- The unrivaled repertoire of Homo sapiens: Here’s an amazing recording of a temple ceremony in Vrindavan, India, combining drums, gongs, voices, wind, brass, and strings.
- Living up to its name: Our video archive is a great place to peek at an animal’s behavioral style. This American Dipper—our only aquatic songbird—looks fully at home as it bobs and walks underwater in an Alaska stream.