Hearing Cornell's First Birds

In honor of (early) Earth Day, here are some early recordings—in fact, they may be the first recordings officially done at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Tomorrow in class, I assigned some primary documents about the history of wildlife recording in the U.S., specifically the work of the Ornithology Lab in the 1920s. In digging up some almost-forgotten dissertation research and connecting some new dots, I’m pretty sure I can now can place the first recordings of wild birds that the ornithologists there recorded: a Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a Song Sparrow, both captured just outside of Ithaca on May 18, 1929.

(As an aside, it is almost impossible to prove that these kinds of “firsts” are actually “the first,” and in fact that isn’t super important to my work [or the narrative of the class], which tries to put these recordings into a much larger social and cultural context. But still, this kind of archival stuff is fun.)

In a 1938 article for The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, Cornell Professor Peter Paul Kellogg discusses the outset of the recording projects at Cornell:

In May 1929, the Fox-Case Company sent out two men with equipment to Auburn, NY, to record sound pictures of wild birds for a springtime release. After spending considerable time about Auburn, with no success, they came to Cornell to enlist the help of Professor A.A. Allen, to make the birds hold still. From his long experience with bird photography Dr. Allen was able to help them out, and that morning songs of three common birds were recorded synchronously with motion pictures. 1

Now, if you search the archive of the Macaulay Library for recordings done in May 1929, you get two results: the Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and the Song Sparrow. Whatever the third bird was that morning, it sadly did not make it into the online archive, and is probably lost to time.

If you poke around a little bit on those pages, you can also find the links to directly download the files: Grosbeak and Sparrow.

Happy listening, everyone!

  1. P.P. Kellogg, “Hunting the Songs of Vanishing Birds with a Microphone,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 30.2 (February 1, 1938): 203.

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