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The World’s Largest Wildlife Sound Archive and the Urgency of Preserving Noise

A flying bobolink in "The Burgess Bird Book for Children" (1919) (via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)
A flying bobolink in “The Burgess Bird Book for Children” (1919) (via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)

Digital archives are essential for sharing information and encouraging its preservation, especially for sound. Unlike photography, text, or visual art, it’s a medium that requires a form of listening interaction, something that a well-designed online resource can facilitate. One of the best is Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, the largest archive of wildlife sounds, from rare bird calls to hundreds of elephants in the night.

A meadow lark in "The Burgess Bird Book for Children" (1919) (via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr)
A meadow lark in “The Burgess Bird Book for Children” (1919) (via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

The digitization of the sounds and their online accessibility were announced in 2013, although the project reappeared this month when shared by sites like NPR and Kottke. The library itself dates back to 1929 with a sparrow’s song, and involves both professional recordings and amateur field audio to cover as much of the world’s nature as possible.

Trevor Pinch, a Cornell University sociologist who edited the 2011 Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, explained on NPR Morning Edition’s summer Close Listening: Decoding Nature Through Sound series, that the study of noise really emerged with the stethoscope in the 19th century. It offered a new way to listen in on a body, even when doctors still couldn’t see inside. Pinch added that the “visual field is kind of in front of us — like a kind of screen” and sound is “all around.”

Recently sound artist Matt Parker’s Imitation Archive project at the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park recorded some of the droning, clanking, and clicking sounds of the historic computers, which were added to the British Library Sound and Vision Archive. Technology and its clatter is slowly joining nature in archiving interest, as it often contributes just as much to our aural experiences. Technological obsolescence isn’t only a concern in the loss of those sounds; many of our 20th-century sound archives involve recordings on retrotech, like wax cylinders, records, and reel-to-reel tapes. This January, the British Library launched a $60 million crowdfunding initiative to preserve its archive of over 6 million sound recordings.

The Macaulay Library represents the ephemeral quality of sound that makes it vital to archive, whether to represent the dwindling population of Wyoming’s greater sage-grouse threatened by energy development, or to record the eerie song of the common loon, which is endangered in parts of the United States due to air and water pollution. Many sound archives have high quality audio now online, but the library also geographically pinpoints many of the recordings, situating the animal, bird, insect, fish, or other creature in its habitat. The library maintains a list of “most wanted” audio from elusive species like the masked duck and the Arctic loon to create an ecological sound profile of the world that is as cohesive as possible. A growing component of the library are videos, where you can watch a red warbler sing in Mexico, or 100 white-faced whistling ducks congregate in Venezuela.

Below are a few selections, including a common loon in Ontario, the diverse vocalizations of an Australian lyrebird (known to imitate chainsaws and car alarms), a barred owl in New York, and cicadas in a Costa Rican night. There are also environmental recordings including nearly two hours from a temple in Vrindavan, India, and forest elephants in the Central African Republic.

Audio Producer Bill McQuay on the library’s staff picks page explains the recording was made in a bai, “a large clearing in the center of the Central African rainforest where hundreds of forest elephants gather to commune under the full moon.”

Listen to more from the world’s largest wildlife sound archive at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library.

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