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Aural Persuits

Look, Listen, Learn

article spread
by Pat Leonard
Photograph courtesy of  Woods Hole Science Aquarium

Think about the last time you visited a zoo, aquarium, science center, or museum. You may have learned about egrets, elephants, or whales and the ways they use sound. But how fascinating might it be if you could slow down those sounds, hear the inaudible, or make your own imitation and see how you differ from the real thing? You’ll be able to do that at the dozen facilities that are now using or installing Raven Exhibit software from the Bioacoustics Research Program (BRP) at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has also purchased the program for use in some wildlife refuges.

Exploring sound is a new frontier in natural history exhibits. An exhibit we built for the Lab’s Visitor Center has now grown into interactive, educational software that reveals a new dimension of the natural world.

“With Raven Exhibit, people see sound through spectrograms and waveforms,” says BRP software developer Tim Krein. “They play with sound by speeding it up, slowing it down, running it backwards, and recording themselves imitating certain sounds.” Recordings (often supplied by the Lab’s Macaulay Library archive) are accompanied by images and information about each species. Exhibits may contain Lab-created content about birds, marine mammals, or other animals. Each institution can also customize the exhibit with additional recordings, text, and images.

Raven Exhibit will be used with an upcoming National Geographic exhibit at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York. It will highlight whale sounds and the problem of human-generated noise for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Visitors will learn about how scientists record ocean sounds, and how they use recordings to protect right whales. Institutions in Scotland, Maine, Alaska, Connecticut, and Washington are among those developing exhibits using Raven with marine sounds.

Krein has just completed writing a custom software package for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas. It will be part of a new avian exhibit to be housed in the Rose Hall of Birds (named for Cornell Lab executive board chairman Rusty Rose). Krein is also developing Raven Exhibit for use in the classroom.

“People get excited when they see what we have,” Krein says. “It’s interactive and fun; it uses technology; it can educate visitors about the physics of sound and about conservation. I hope these exhibits open a door for people, encouraging them to get outside and interact with nature.” Learn more about Raven Exhibit at www.birds.cornell. edu/Raven.

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