The World

The oldest recording in the Macaulay Library, made in 1929, is of a song sparrow. (Photo by Chuq Von Rospach / CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)


As of last week, all 150,000 of the nature audio recordings in Cornell’s Macaulay Library have been digitized and are now available online so anyone can listen to them. The library includes recordings of 75 percent of the bird species on the planet today.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology founder Arthur Allen made the library’s first recording, of a song sparrow, in 1929. Cornell has spent 12 years converting its reams of film and tape into digital form.

“These sounds are of interest to anyone who has a desire to learn more about the natural world,” Greg Budney, curator of the Macaulay Library, told PRI’s “The World”.

The recordings are useful as references for scientists trying to identify rare or elusive species by their calls in the wild. They are also shedding light on courtship behaviors and the evolution of song.

Bird voices have taken star turns in movies, including “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” Buckbeak the Hippogriff’s voice was a recording of a limpkin from the Macaulay Library. It’s unclear which limpkin played the starring role, but this is a recording of one taken in Peru in 1982. “I tried every day for almost two months to get that three or four calls,” the author of the recording says at the end of the tape.

Some of the recordings are of birds that are very rare or may be extinct. Thanks to the Macaulay Library, we can still listen to the ivory-billed woodpecker and the Bachman’s warbler, although neither bird has had a confirmed sighting for decades.

Today, the library is still growing, and anyone can contribute with appropriate sound equipment and training. Cornell says it’s making a special push to record all the bird species of North America. It has made a list of birds it’s especially interesting in catching on tape, including the masked duck, the brown booby, and the great cormorant.

What are your favorite bird sounds from the Macaulay Library?


LISTEN: Arthur Allen, founder of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, narrates “An Evening at Sapsucker Woods,” a recording of the sounds of birds and his colorful descriptions of them.