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Peter Paul Kellogg and Albert R. Brand examining recording equipment
Peter Paul Kellogg and Albert R. Brand examining recording equipment

The first half of the Twentieth Century was a period of exciting growth and innovation for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It was during this period that the very first recordings of wild birds were made, in part to demonstrate a new technology – motion-picture film with synchronized sound – and this event was the birth of the Cornell Library of Natural Sounds. Along with others, including his friend and graduate student Peter Paul Kellogg, Doc Allen developed techniques and key technologies for recording birds that are still used today. Highlights from this period include:

  • 1929: Allen and Kellogg made the very first recordings of wild birds at an Ithaca city park just down the hill from Cornell.
    Allen’s graduate student Albert R. Brand and Cornell undergraduate M. Peter Keane developed recording equipment for use in the field. Within two years they had successfully recorded more than 40 species of birds.
  • 1931: Using World War I parabola molds from the Cornell Physics Department, Peter Keane and True McLean (a Cornell professor in Electrical Engineering) designed and built a parabolic reflector for field recordings of bird songs.
  • 1932: Arthur Allen and Paul Kellogg conducted the very first behavioral investigation using film and sound (a study of Ruffed Grouse display behavior).
  • 1930s: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology mounted two major cross-country recording expeditions to record the sounds and behaviors of various North American bird species nearing the brink of extinction – among them the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. These expeditions used a “state of the art” recording system so bulky and heavy that it had to be hauled in a panel truck or, when the roads ran out, in a mule-drawn wagon.
  • 1940s: Brand produced “American Bird Songs”, an extensive bird song field guide album. Commercial sales of phonograph records (and later tapes or CD’s) of bird sounds remained a key source of income for the Lab of Ornithology well into the 1980s.

Cinematic and Disc Recordings

In the spring of 1929, Peter Paul Kellogg, a graduate student of Allen’s fascinated by electrical sound equipment, became an instructor in ornithology at Cornell. That May, Fox-Case Movietone Corporation asked Allen for help recording a singing wild bird to demonstrate a new technology, motion-picture film with synchronized sound. Allen agreed to lend a hand. On May 18, Allen, Kellogg, and the Movietone crew spent the morning in an Ithaca park, recording a Song Sparrow, a House Wren, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. The results were disappointing and the recording equipment was horrifically expensive and heavy, but the obvious possibilities were tantalizing to Allen and his colleagues.

Albert R. Brand in the field
Albert R. Brand in the field

That autumn Albert R. Brand, who had quit his job as a broker on the New York Stock Exchange in 1928, came to Cornell to study ornithology under Doc Allen. Brand was particularly interested in sound recording and, having the financial wherewithal, he began buying, testing, and modifying recording equipment. A Cornell undergraduate, M. Peter Keane, volunteered to assist him.

At the time, motion-picture sound film was the best medium for recording sounds, so Brand and Keane focused on sound cinematography. Within two years they had successfully recorded more than 40 species of birds. At the 1931 annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union (A.O.U.), the outstanding contribution was doubtless Brand’s Preliminary Report of a New Method for Recording Bird Songs according to the A.O.U. secretary. Even so, because of the limitations of the equipment, the sound quality for recordings of bird sounds remained poor.

Cornell undergraduate M. Peter Keane with amplifier and film sound recorder inside the sound truck.
Cornell undergraduate M. Peter Keane with amplifier and film sound recorder inside the sound truck.

Over the next winter, three local electrical engineers, including True McLean, a Cornell professor in the Electrical Engineering Department, redesigned and rebuilt the equipment. Peter Keane suggested that a parabolic reflector would intensify the signal picked up by their microphone. (Keane said he got the idea during a visit to Radio City Music Hall, then under construction, where parabolic reflectors were used to record voices of individual singers.) The Cornell Physics Department just happened to have some World War I parabola molds in attic storage–originally made for experiments in the detection of approaching enemy aircraft–and the reflector was soon built.

Preparing to record picture and sound of Ruffed Grouse drumming
Preparing to record picture and sound of Ruffed Grouse drumming

In 1932, Arthur Allen and Paul Kellogg used these tools to undertake the first behavioral investigation using film and sound. Their subject was the Ruffed Grouse. Naturalists had argued for a century and a half about how the male grouse made his drumming noise. They knew that the bird stood on a log in the woods and fanned his wings while drumming, slowly at first, and then accelerating to a whir for the finale. But those who had studied the performance debated whether the cock’s wings beat against each other, or his sides, or the log he perched on, or just the air. Filming from a blind at very close range, Allen took motion pictures that demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the grouse drummed on air and nothing else. At the same time, Paul Kellogg and Peter Keane recorded the sounds of the drumming grouse. Kellogg, in charge of the microphone, spent a night camouflaged in a sleeping bag beside the “drumming log,” waiting for the grouse to begin his dawn performance. Keane was stationed some distance away in the panel truck, operating the recording equipment. Once Allen and company had recorded both sound and pictures, they combined them to make their film. The film was presented along with a paper at the 1932 meeting of the A.O.U.

The truck that carried early recording equipment
The truck that carried early recording equipment

This new recording system was greatly improved, but it was still so bulky and heavy that it had to be hauled around in a panel truck or, when the roads ran out, in a mule-drawn wagon. Nonetheless, in the 1930s the Lab of Ornithology, with financial support from Albert Brand and other sources, mounted two major cross-country recording and film/photography expeditions to attempt to record the sounds, appearance, and behaviors of various North American bird species that seemed to be nearing extinction–among them the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Trumpeter Swan, and California Condor.

Audio guide record albums published in the late 1930s
Audio guide record albums published in the late 1930s

These products reflected a long history of public outreach encouraged by Allen. At the same time that Allen made the Lab of Ornithology a center for academic study, field research, technological innovation, and the training of professional ornithologists, he also insisted that it promote bird conservation and encourage a wider public interest in birds. His highly entertaining accounts of Lab of Ornithology recording expeditions in National Geographic Magazine (June 1937) were widely read and brought the Lab worldwide visibility and recognition.

Albert R. Brand examining the groove in a phonograph disc recording
Albert R. Brand examining the groove in a phonograph disc recording

In the late 1930s, Brand began production of an extensive bird song field guide album for the public, American Bird Songs, which was released just after the U.S. joined World War II. One consequence of this mammoth production was the realization that record discs might provide greater archive longevity than the highly volatile nitrocellulose movie film. This thought received reinforcement during World War II when Allen, Kellogg, and colleagues were sent to Panama by the U.S. Army to record jungle sounds as part of military initiatives to protect the Canal Zone. The high vulnerability of nitrocellulose film to tropical atmospheric conditions made recording direct-to-disc the only viable strategy, and on return to Cornell, this medium became the standard format for original recordings, archival storage, and commercial products. The commercial sales of phonograph records of bird sounds went on to become a key source of income for the Lab of Ornithology well into the 1980s.