Audubon Audio Slideshow: Linda Macaulay, Expert Birdsong Recordist

More than two decades ago, Linda Macaulay and her husband were on a trip to Kenya when she was introduced to birdsong recording. Since then, Macaulay has become one of the world’s leading animal recordists having captured 2,668 species of birds for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s sound library. Of those 2,668 unique species recordings, more than 450 are new to the Lab and 357 of them remain recorded only by her.

In April, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology presented Macaulay with the prestigious Arthur A. Allen award for outstanding service to ornithology. In nearly a quarter century, she has contributed 5,974 individual bird recordings from 50 countries to the Lab’s library. Macaulay recently spoke with Audubon about what it takes to be a birdsong recordist and why it's vital to science and the future of conservation.

How did you get started doing this?
One day I got a piece of mail from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology saying they were running a bird watching trip to Kenya. My husband and I had never gone out of the United States to go bird watching and I thought, “Wow, why don’t we do that?” For the first time in my life, I was exposed to this concept of birds really making sounds and that you can identify them from their sounds.

What kind of work goes into making a recording?
It sounds really easy to just pick up your tape recorder, go outside and make a recording, but it doesn’t really work quite that way. You need to be organized. You need to have an idea of what you want to record, where it lives, you have to get yourself there, and you need to know how to use your equipment.

Is there a learning curve to sound recording?
When I first started doing this, I was working with [ornithologist] Ted Parker and I would run into him at the Lab of Ornithology and I’d say, “I can’t do this, I just can’t learn all these bird sounds.” And he kept saying, “If you hear it a hundred times, you’ll know what it is.” And he was right. It’s repetition. But it’s like anything else in life. If you wanted to make a soufflé tonight for dinner and it’s the first time you’ve made one, it might not come out perfectly, but if you keep doing it you’ll get it and it will get better.

What kind of problems have you run into in the field when you’re trying to record?
Sometimes you get a recording of a great bird just because you were out and the tape recorder was running, but sometimes you have the bird in your view and it does nothing. You can run tape for 45 minutes and get nothing.

Is there a specific time when you weren’t able to capture a sound you wanted?

We were in Macoco, [West Africa] where you can get a local guide who will walk you to caves where gray neck rock fowl lives. To get to Macoco, you have to drive for three days on dirt roads, take canoes upstream and finally trails where you crouch down outside of the cave and hope no one makes any noise. This bird is very, very rare and you have to get there before they come out of the caves very early in the morning. So I’m running my tape and the bird comes out and it just keeps hopping. It left without making any sound – nothing. I get to check it off because I saw it, but I didn’t get to record it.

What do you enjoy most about your work?
The most exciting thing about what I do is being able to do it. When you go out into the field, it’s beautiful to be in nature and just to see animals and see birds and what they do and how they behave and to be away from cities – it’s very hard to get away from people and sound.

What does receiving the Arthur A. Allen award mean to you?
I never thought I would ever get an award like this and I’m very lucky to have something to honor my passion. I really feel like I’m contributing to what our lab does. We’re not an advocacy organization - we provide science for people to use and this body of work really contributes to that.

What kind of equipment do you use?
I use Sennheiser MKH-60 microphones and two Nagra Ares BB+ flash recorders. Very, very sexy. They’re small, compact, lightweight and very, very reliable in the field because your equipment gets exposed to dust if you’re in the Sahara, it gets exposed to rain, it gets exposed to great differences in temperature and humidity and a lot of recorders will just stop working, so reliability of equipment is very, very important.

Is there one bird that you haven’t been able to track down yet?
Trumpeter. It’s a turkey like bird that lives in the Amazon and I’ve missed it at every camp I’ve ever been at and everybody else I know has seen it. It calls and it walks through camps and I’ve just never seen it. It’s not even rare, but you have to understand you’re never going to see every bird and you’re never going to get every recording that you want. As long as you have that mentality that you’re going to get what opportunity gives you and do the best that you can with what you’re given, then that’s what you should do. Life’s too short.

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