A Celebration of Sound

A Celebration of Sound

Online feature from KJ 75, Biodiversity


It would be the trip of a lifetime to travel to the Guyanan rainforest and hear the bizarre droning of the Capuchinbird. Only the luckiest few could ever hear the underwater serenade of a humpback whale. And though some may still dream of finding the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, its calls and hollow drumming have long been silenced in North America.

A CD from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology transports the listener to wild habitats around the world and even turns back the clock to celebrate the sounds of animals. Selected from more than 150,000 recordings in the Lab’s collection, the 62 cuts on The Diversity of Animal Sounds capture the voices and vibrations of animals as they court, fight, find food, and react to predators.

Talented and dedicated contributors collected these acoustic gems from some of the wildest places on the planet. Jack Bradbury, director of the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds, sneaked up on Franquet’s epauletted bats in the darkness of a West African forest to record the males’ syncopated courtship calls.

“Many of our contributors went to the ends of the earth for these recordings,” Bradbury says. “They climbed trees, they dug holes to hide in until the animal approached, they spent weeks at sea. It’s amazing how obsessive they were in the quest to record these animals.”
Some contributors even managed to record sounds that humans cannot normally hear. Rex Cocroft placed a phonograph cartridge needle on the stem of a leaf in Panama to amplify the sounds of an insect, the yellow buffalo treehopper, as it rapidly vibrated its abdomen to transmit signals through its legs and along the leaf to another treehopper. Once amplified, these treehopper vibrations sound like a motorcycle revving up under water.

The treehopper sounds were used in Steven Spielberg’s latest film, A.I., along with the voices of Screaming Piha, Marbled Wood-Quail, Common Potoo, and other peculiar sounds featured on this CD.
The CD also includes the tapping and calls of a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers recorded in 1935 by Lab founder Arthur Allen and his codirector, Peter Paul Kellogg. These sounds were produced by a species that has never been recorded since and is now feared to be extinct. The Kauai Oo sings the final song on the CD, a haunting voice from one of the last known birds of its kind.

“These last two cuts remind the listener of how important it is to preserve the world of our native animals and how easily they and that world can be lost, leaving us with only silence,” says Bradbury.
The CD was originally distributed as a gift to some 600 ornithologists at the American Ornithologists’ Union meeting at Cornell University in 1999.

Soon after the event, the Lab was inundated with requests for the CD. Some people simply enjoyed the experience of listening to an array of sounds that most people never get to hear. And teachers found dozens of sounds to spark their students’ interest in animal diversity, from the video-game-like choruses of the Tungara frog to the spine-tingling rattles of a diamondback rattlesnake.

In response to demand, and in recognition of the CD’s educational value, the Lab has re-released the soundtrack with a new booklet by Bradbury. The 28-page booklet explains how body size, habitat, call function, and social behaviors influence an animal’s signal and produce the diverse sounds, from the bizarre to the beautiful, represented on the CD. The new version features many new tracks and additional animal families.

“This is truly a landmark collection,” says John Fitzpatrick, director of the Lab of Ornithology. “I invite everyone to open their ears and minds to this amazing sampling of animal diversity. It will broaden their perspective and completely change the way they think about animal sounds.”

The Diversity of Animal Sounds is available from the Cornell Lab “Online Nature Mall” here (among many other fascinating compilations of recordings)
And you can download the very informative booklet that comes with this CD, on the meanings and purposes of animal sounds, as a PDF file here

“Habitat plays an important role in shaping sound diversity. Sounds may become distorted as they travel through the habitat. Animals minimize this distortion by producing sounds that are least affected by their habitat. For example, forest trees generate echoes that will disrupt the temporal patterning in a sound. Open country habitats produce few echoes. As a result, forest birds generally use songs with long, pure tones, while most prairie birds produce rapid songs with many short notes.”

Reprinted with permission
© 2001 Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Macaulay Library
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY 14850

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