Meet the Man Who Sang Like a Bird and Helped Save the Redwoods

Charles Kellogg advocated for California's redwood forests to crowds across the country—while warbling from a giant tree-mobile.

Charles Kellogg could sing like a bird. Like a chorus of birds, like a maple filled with warblers, like a dawn chorus on the prairie, like a one-man bird band who could emit an inexplicable simultaneity of whistles, chortles, squawks, cheeps, hoots, trills, and chirps. Not imitations, not bird calls, certainly not pishes. He sang as a bird sings—vibrating his vocal cords in a freak-of-nature manner up in the high-frequency vibration range that extended beyond what the human ear could detect, let alone what the average human throat could emit.

Kellogg was equal parts bird-singing performer, self-taught naturalist, and ardent conservationist who hobnobbed with the likes of John Muir and John Burroughs. Born in 1868 and raised on a ranch in the northern Sierra Nevada near present-day Susanville, he was the son of a mining entrepreneur who left young Charles to his own devices (his mother died in Charles’s infancy). In his own telling, he was largely raised by local Native Americans and Chinese laborers, and spent his days “in the meadows and forests and was always preoccupied with birds and insects, listening to them and talking to them in their own language.”

As Kellogg explained in his 1930 memoir Charles Kellogg the Nature Singer—His Book, “Through a strange whim of Nature, my throat, below the vocal chords, has the same physical structure as that of the bird.” Talking to birds became second nature to Kellogg growing up, and at first he thought little of it. “Not until I was a grown lad did I learn that the ability to talk in the language of the birds and animals was unusual and that others could not do so.”

His ability was definitely unusual. As his fame grew, admirers with a scientific bent attempted to explain it. Whether Kellogg’s larynx had the exact same structure of a bird's vocal organ, called a syrinx, is unknown, but his ability to produce incredibly high vibrations was a provable fact. Dr. Benjamin Sharp, secretary of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, arranged for lab tests to measure the frequency of Kellogg’s bird voice. Using Helmholz tuning forks, they measured vibrations that began at 14,000 hertz and progressed upward from there into the inaudible zone, topping out at 49,560 vibrations per second. In more familiar terms, Kellogg could warble through a 12-octave range. His speaking voice, though, vibrated at a very human 4,000 hertz.

When he later performed bird and insect singing on live radio, listeners reported that bugs would start crawling toward the radio, chickens would emerge from their roosts and start cackling, and one man reported his rapture upon hearing the cry of a loon for the first time since he was a small boy. 

So else what did Kellogg do with this talent?

He saved the redwoods. Not singlehandedly, of course, but starting in 1917, Charles Kellogg did as much advocacy as any contemporary about the need to save California’s redwood forests from imminent destruction. His platform? The world’s first motorhome, carved from a single massive redwood log. Interesting fellow, this Kellogg.

By the time Kellogg took to the road to bird-sing the praises of disappearing redwood forests, he was already known for his birdsong recordings, often with orchestral accompaniment. And he had already made a name for himself in vaudeville, where he was known as the Bird Man. A natural showman, Kellogg coveted attention, and got plenty of it. But he was also genuinely alarmed at the destruction of redwood forests. As he wrote in his memoir, “When I . . . first saw lumbering and all the terrible devastation going on in the forest, I was heart broken. I felt I must find a way to picture the greatness and beauty of these forests to all the world, so all could help in saving them. Since all the world could not come to the forests, I kept thinking and thinking . . . how to take the forest out into the world.”

He decided to take the forest to the world in the form of a 22-foot section of a fallen redwood trunk, 11 feet in diameter, that he painstakingly hollowed out, carved, and fashioned into livable quarters. Painstaking might even be an understatement. A mathematical friend of his calculated that the section would weigh 36 tons. Hollowed out, it would still check in at 11 tons. And redwood logs that size don’t hollow out, nor move, readily.

The tree came from Bull Creek Flat, now part of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. After the fallen trunk was cut to length, Kellogg fashioned a battering ram of sorts to hollow it out inch by inch, a process that took many months. But the log was still too heavy to jack up onto his chassis of choice, a 1919 Nash Quad. The solution: to dig underneath the log—with timbers known as sleepers holding the weight of the log across the ditch—and back the truck into the hole. “With an ax I chopped off the sleepers and the shell slowly settled onto the frame of the Quad," Kellogg wrote. "The great weight literally buried the wheels into the earth.”

The Nash Quad, donated by automaker Charles Nash himself (“Mr. Nash was an idealist and he saw my vision of the redwoods”), was a worthy choice for the chassis. The Quad was a four-wheel-drive workhorse that had distinguished itself as an ambulance chassis in World War I. It proved more than capable of getting the log out of the ditch, but the shell was still too heavy for toodling around. Only after running a whirligig lawn sprinkler inside it for four weeks to leach out tree sap did Kellogg get it down to a semimanageable weight, to which he then added windows, cabinets, a kitchenette, a bed, and, yes, a mini loo. The Travel Log ultimately checked in at around eight tons, and lumbered slowly along the nation’s highways on its multiple cross-country tours. Top speed was about 18 mph.

But Kellogg and his motoring redwood tree were a hit. He exhibited it first in San Francisco, then drove it to Los Angeles and commenced four years of touring. The mustachioed Kellogg looked the part of nature singer. He wore jodhpurs and high boots, donned a broad-brim hat over his thick shock of wavy wair, and looked fit and hale. The exact nature of his spiel is lost to time, but he extols his show in his memoir: “Everywhere the log was received with enthusiasm. Everywhere I talked and showed my pictures and sang my bird songs to ‘Save the Redwoods.’” This being wartime, Kellogg also patriotically sold Liberty Bonds during his shows.  

Kellogg called Bull Creek Flat, home of his great log, “the most magnificent stand of redwood trees in the world,” so he took particular pleasure in knowing that the Save the Redwoods League gained protection for the stand—“forever an unparalleled playground for the people.”

The League was founded in 1918, and Kellogg became a life member. Fifty years later, the League celebrated the establishment of Redwood National Park. In a neat bit of synchronicity, the park was dedicated on October 2, 1968—Charles Kellogg’s 100th birthday. (He died in 1949.)

How much Kellogg contributed to the conservation of coast redwood trees can’t be measured, but there’s no question that for four or so years, on multiple cross-country trips, he was their most ardent national advocate. Remember, this wasn’t long after a redwood stump displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 was thought by many to be a fake. The girth of the Travel Log, presented with Kellogg’s conservation message and dazzling birdsong, had to have moved and enchanted his audiences.

After his touring years, Kellogg retired his log home to his residence in Morgan Hill, California, where he showed it to curious visitors: “Just as I lived in it for years, it remains intact, a Redwood museum for all to see.” Seventy-five years later, Humboldt Redwoods State Park acquired the wooden motorhome and put it on display in the park visitor center. More than a century after its construction, it remains a remarkable work of art—obviously carved from a single giant log, hand-adzed, richly grained, deeply waxed, cozily outfitted. Birdsong fills the room. For visitors, it can take a few moments and some reading to comprehend the human source of the sounds. Charles Kellogg, the nature singer, the Bird Man, the champion of the redwoods, continues to sing from his Travel Log for any audience that cares to listen.