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Macaulay Library’s Vast Archive of Natural Sounds Profiled in NSF Science Nation Video

Video by Science Nation
Science Nation is a video series produced by the National Science Foundation to highlight innovative science projects supported by NSF funding. In August 2017, the program profiled the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

Transcript of episode:

Listen up, audiophiles! The good old days of reel-to-reel aren’t over yet. At least not here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Can you guess what this is?

(intense creaking sound)

It’s an Eastern narrow-mouthed toad.

“It’s a question of long-term preservation and accessibility of the media,” says Mike Webster, director of the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library.

With support from the National Science Foundation, evolutionary biologist Mike Webster and a team at Cornell University’s Macaulay Library are digitizing and cataloging a huge archive of animal audio and video recordings from their vault—mostly birds, but other animals too.

“The analogue material that we have in the collection has been coming in for decades,” Webster says. The digitized recordings are a bonanza for animal behaviorists, who use the archive to study critters from all over the world—even some that have gone extinct, like the Imperial Woodpecker.

“It stood about 2 feet tall and it dwarfed the Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” he says. “It’s sadly no longer with us, but we can still know how those birds behave and how they flew and how they foraged on the trees.”

Animal behaviorists like Webster work hand-in-glove with colleagues who study preserved physical specimens, like these Alder and Willow Flycatchers, for example. “They’re a pretty cryptic group,” says Charles Dardia, collections manager at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates. “A lot of them look exactly alike. The best way to tell them apart is the call they make.”

Until the 1960s, they were thought to be one species. But all was not as it seemed. Some of their songs were different. Macaulay’s Collection Management Lead Matt Young played us some recordings. Alder Flycatcher first, a scratchy free-beer. Then Willow Flycatcher, a falling fitz-bew. Different songs, from what turned out to be two different birds. Identical? Not even close.

Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney says digitizing all the historic “metadata”—notebooks documenting the who/what/when/where—is important too. “Without it an audio or video asset really has extremely limited value,” Budney says. “This is what tells the story. This is what gives it context.”

And they’ve put a lot of work into picking the right digital format for the archive. What’s state-of-the-art today won’t stay that way for long. “The digital format that we adopt today will probably not be the digital format that exists 50 years from now,” Budney says. “The strategy is to move these things into a digital format that allows you to migrate to the next technology.”

In the end, Webster says this digital archive is about sharing this treasure trove of pictures and sounds with scientists and birdwatchers all over the globe. “By having a collection like this, people who are interested in behavior can study the behavior of animals and places where they can’t necessarily get to themselves,” Webster says.

That’s a project worth spooling up and pressing play. For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.

The Cornell Lab

All About Birds
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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library