Originally published in American Scholar.
Hearing Is Believing
Ivory-billed sightings leave field biologists wanting to hear more
The ivory-billed woodpecker, arguably the most famous bird in the world right now, sounds like an annoying toy trumpet. Not the kind you blow into, but the kind of horn you might attach to a bike, with a red rubber ball stuck on one end. Until the news report in April of 15 recent sightings in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas, the ivory-billed had been presumed extinct for more than 50 years. No one alive had ever heard it trumpet in the flesh, and the silence had become a symbol of the failure to conserve North American biodiversity. But now one of the strangest, most magnificent voices of the southeastern forests appears to be back. For ornithologists who are said to have fallen to their knees upon hearing about this renewed contact, the rediscovery offers a second chance at conservation, an opportunity to get it right.
The first thing I was ever told about the ivory-billed woodpecker was that, for all its impressive size and plumage, seeing it is only part of the story. Hearing it is something else entirely. Until recently, the only place to hear its voice was at the Macaulay Library, a collection of more than 160,000 natural sounds, at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology. Listening to a 70-year-old recording, I tried to imagine what an Arkansas forest or a Louisiana bayou might sound like if it were thick with mated pairs. The honk of the canopy would be mind-bending and relentless, like the petulance of a dozen naughty children hiding in trees with their most blaring toys. The vocalization on record starts with seven sets of two squawks each and dissolves into unstructured but sharp warbling. It’s a distinctive, grating sound—the kind you could imagine early settlers reaching for their shotguns to quiet. Without the widespread call and peck of these woodpeckers, the natural soundscape of the southeast has softened. Career ornithologists live for the promise of that sound.
In January 2002, James Van Remsen Jr., the curator of birds at Louisiana State University’s Museum of Natural Science, joined John Fitzpatrick, the director of Cornell’s Laboratory of Ornithology, to organize a group of field biologists in an auditory search for the ivory-billed. The expedition was inspired by several credible reports of ivory-billed encounters as early as 1999. No one on the 2002 team had expected to spot the woodpecker outright—despite the fact that with its bug eyes, long bill, and blood red crest, the ivory-billed resembles a miniature, feathered pterodactyl. It has been called the “Lord God” bird. An adult stands at 20 inches, and at full extension, its wings stretch to 30 inches, a giant among woodpeckers. Its beak, a wedge of keratin, roots deep into its head and conceals a barbed tongue so long it loops about the inside of the bird’s skull. Outside of the tropics, the ivory-billed is as flamboyant as birds get. But the Pearl River Bayou, the Louisiana bog where several unconfirmed ivory-billed sightings have been reported, is a big place. For six people, tramping through methane-laced sludge and slapping at mosquito blizzards, a visual encounter with an ivory-billed, like the recent sightings, would have been pure luck. So instead, the group planned to listen for it.
I asked Van Remsen what it was about sound that appealed to ornithologists. Why was the main thrust of the 2002 ivory-billed expedition aural? He didn’t choose to talk first about sound. Like many other field biologists, he went straight to refuting sight. “I’ve spent the last 25 years here at LSU sifting through sight reports, and I can tell you right now that they are the most unreliable things in field biology. In court, eyewitness reports are the least admissible. The same thing goes for biology. I would rather use my ears than my eyes any day, because our eyes are so easily deceived.” Sound simply makes sense. The natural world is a dense, opaque place. The ability to detect sound gives perception depth; it nests the visible box within an invisible box. And that is as true of the naturalists in the field as it is for the species they study. Van Remsen’s answer to my question was the stock answer I’ve received from many ornithologists. The only way to stress sound is to tear down our default sense, step out of the box into a sightless world, and trust our ears.
Besides sounding like some kid armed with a toy trumpet and a vicious grudge, the ivory-billed makes a characteristic double knock on wood. Its peck has definite cadence. The recording in the Macaulay Library captured this sound in 1935. The researchers hoped to match a voice in the present with this voice from the past. Van Remsen, Fitzpatrick, and colleagues sprinkled the Pearl River Bayou with 12 autonomous recording units, unassuming white cylinders strapped high on tree trunks and powered by car batteries. The units indiscriminately sponge sound from the forest. From January 25 to March 17 of 2002, these devices recorded more than 4,000 hours of sound. Casting a wide net, they culled 130,000 distinct auditory signatures that seemed to match the reference recording’s ivory-bill rap.
The crew hauled the recording units back to the lab and emptied bottled sound into computers, where audio signatures were converted into waveforms and spectrographic images of frequency and amplitude plotted against time. By superimposing these waveforms on the reference signature, researchers could identify exact matches and infer the existence of a surviving ivory-bill. The process transforms sound into a graphical picture and overlays candidate signatures to find a match. Therefore, in order to do anything useful, the computer must turn sound into sight. Veteran ornithologists like Van Remsen, however, know a sound when they hear it. The innate pattern-matching abilities of the human brain and ear are sophisticated processors of auditory information, which is a really just a safe way of saying that vocal recognition, especially in the most talented field biologists, is a kind of magic. But a field biologist, no matter how renowned his aural intuition, will often hear exactly what he expects to hear.
They were so optimistic that they’d encounter the ivory-billed that some hoped the distant knocking of what turned out to be recorded gunshots was evidence of their target. In his final report on the group’s effort, Fitzpatrick wrote that “the signals in question had an explosive onset equally represented by a wide band of frequencies, followed by a tapering ‘smudge.’ This signature is clearly that of a gunshot, with the smudge representing decaying reverberations of the sound through the forest.” Sometimes even the invisible box lies, and in this case, it was the spectrogram, the sound snapshot, that dashed the group’s hopes. Despite being a disappointment, the result proved that in biodiversity and conservation studies, sound is sometimes more important than sight. The 1935 recording of the ivory-billed was an auditory tweezer. It allowed the group to pluck, one by one, all the other sound from the swamp, including the blast from the double-barreled shotgun of a local hunter. The irony of the gunshot’s false positive was lost on no one. What was left was silence.
The power of sound is that it permeates its space. Any visual images a naturalist might capture are selections from within the frame of our experience. Sound, however, is total, whether you can see the source or not, and as such it is a disembodiment of the source, a projection into space. Greg Budney, the audio curator at Macaulay Library, believes that his collection explodes the menagerie. In a museum and zoo culture that values the carcass dead or alive, the vocal sounds stored in Macaulay animate natural history collections, breathing life into biodiversity, literally giving it a voice. Budney himself speaks in a voice softened by years of birding. Whenever he played me sounds from his collection, his voice would float in as an afterthought, a tight, nonintrusive caption on an image stirred in the mind. The first time I spoke to him on the phone, I addressed him as Dr. Budney, assuming, as it is often safe to, that almost everyone in a senior position at a university holds a Ph.D. He didn’t correct me then. He rode perceived credentials until our second conversation, when I found that his first job out of college was at the Macaulay Library as a sound archivist, and that he had been there ever since—24 years. He relishes chasing animals in the field, parabolic dish or directional microphone in hand. He is earnest in his imitations of birds. He wants me to hear what he hears in his head. Over the phone and in person, he has no qualms about going woook, wook, wok or phth, phth, phth. He follows each of his imitations with a name, a biogeography, visual description, even diet. His lack of inhibition is so jarring that I often forget to listen to anything beyond his twittering rendition. For someone like Budney, the silent, cloistered world of the academic holds little appeal. He needs to hear sound, to process it. “Explorers have no patience for papers,” he said. But after nearly 25 years in the field, a lifetime of birdsong in his head, and the respect of peers who bring their most puzzling recordings to him, sometimes even he must wonder why a doctorate didn’t just land on him at least 10 years ago.
Budney greeted me at the visitors entrance of the Cornell Department of Ornithology, located nearly five miles from the rest of the campus, nestled into the sapsucker woods. The winding road to the parking lot cuts through tall grass. The main entrance doesn’t face this road, as you might expect. It faces the woods, a lean forest with thin tree trunks as far as the eye can see. The woods and the building frame a small pond around which Canada geese almost always loiter. The side of the building facing the parking lot is solid and windowless, but the side looking onto the forest is completely glass, designed for the birders inside to waste all their time wishing they were outside. I spent at least an hour with telescopes and binoculars in the visitors center, watching the belted kingfishers, great blue herons, and mallards. Every so often I could tell that the birds were screaming at each other, but through glass the show was mute. It’s hard to imagine getting any work done here until after dark, and as Budney led me into the laboratory and library, I saw evidence of graduate students owning up to this struggle. Two of them, sharing an office, had taped a scorecard onto the door that read:
The sweet torture of having your passion taunt you while working out its details!
Down the hall and past a nest of iMacs, Budney led me to the surround-sound mastering studio. On the way, I saw little stuffed animals perched on bookshelves: the tufted titmouse, the hooded warbler, the Baltimore oriole, even a Canada goose. These were the Breezy Singers, animatronic toys made by a Japanese company called Takara, each of which, when squeezed, would sing a Macaulay recording. It was an unusually crisp sound from what amounted to a sad piece of furry plastic. After talking to Budney about how the library’s recordings are used in published compilations like the Peterson Guides, in museums for exhibit effect, in zoos for natural ambiance, and in aural systematics to determine evolutionary relationships, hearing them come from a plastic toy felt like some kind of weird sellout. Budney sounded a little apologetic as he explained the realities of being a business unit within a university.
Sitting in the library’s surround-sound mastering studio, I was encircled by at least 15 speakers of every imaginable size, skewed at all angles. The walls were soundproofed and gray, and the room smelled of technology, as if every speaker had just arrived from the manufacturer, straight out of the box. Budney sat me down on a central chair, recommended I close my eyes, and took me to the seacoast.
“A small island off the coast of Maine, 2:00 A.M.,” he said. “Four mikes set in an array to triangulate on position.” As the sound faded in, the first thing I could identify was a bell buoy. I closed my eyes and imagined it bobbing, flecked with sea spray. For some reason it was red. “Any lobsterman would know that bell,” Budney said. “Each island has its own bell, and any lobsterman would know this one: where they are, where they need to go.” And then I heard the birds. Only a few at first, but steadily mounting; within seconds, there were hundreds of them. Some flying overhead, so close, it seemed, that I ducked several times. Their overriding sound was derisive laughter. With eyes closed, I felt like a small town’s scapegoat, or maybe the laughingstock of my peers. “That maniacal little laugh is the Leach’s storm petrel,” Budney explained. The storm petrels screamed in from both sides, and I could hear wings, but it was more than just flapping. It felt like the cumulative effect of air through each feather, distinct and yet somehow one unified sound. Alongside the screeching and beating, a steady rev pulsed from beneath my feet. The vibrations actually shook the floor, and I could feel my toes bounce. “That toy car shifting gears?” Budney asked. “The storm petrel’s burrow call.” The birds were flying and ensconced, shrill and low. And in the background, I could hear the laughter of gulls and the quick swoops of the common tern.
After three minutes of assault, I felt myself beginning to escape upwards, above the tunneling birds and the flying birds, and the sound faded into mist. I opened my eyes to gray walls and black speakers and the equalizer lights that somehow measured my transportation. I finally fixed my eyes on Budney and registered a sour disappointment. He knew it. Smiling, he said, “Most people will never see those islands. They’ll never get to experience them firsthand. But they want to know they exist.” Sound, because it is unbound, because it is a total experience, is a powerful way to transport us to a new time and place. “One of the best compliments we get from patrons is when they forget to ask for pictures.”
Avian mnemonics are absurd. Field guides often attempt to spell out a call. But writing down what a bird sounds like is hopeless. John James Audubon, in describing the call of the ivory-billed woodpecker in his 1842 folio, refers to it as a pait, pait, pait. In 1881, William Brewster, a rare-bird collector, called it a “comparatively feeble haec.” Frank Chapman, a naturalist who collected the ivory-billed in 1932 on the precipice of its total southeastern collapse, thought it was “a high, rather nasal yap, yap, yap.” Allen and Kellogg, the Cornell ornithologists who finally recorded the bird’s call, debated between kent, kent, kent and kint, kint, kint. This circus of onomatopoeia gets nobody anywhere and is emblematic of a fundamental failure in our language: there really is no way to describe a sound other than to play it back as voiced, as captured. The only arresting descriptions of the ivory-billed’s call go beyond the call itself. Painted with human melodrama, the 1842 Audubon folio refers to the ivory-billed as “never uttering any sound whilst on wing, unless during the love-season; but at all other times, no sooner has this bird alighted than its remarkable voice is heard, at almost every leap which it makes.” Such lyricism makes for nice reading, but it really doesn’t tell you anything, because the experience of a sound cannot be retold; it has to be experienced again.
The ivory-billed woodpecker, along with every other known species of American bird, is described in detail in the field guide The Birds of North America. The ivory-billed is Campephilus principalis. The Greek translation of the genus name is a description of its diet: campa for caterpillar, and philos for loving. It’s a misnomer because the ivory-billed forages mainly for grubs, the tasty larvae of beetles that scuttle beneath the bark of swamp trees. Their beaks slough the bark, and their tongues swipe the exposed wood clean. Grubs and young caterpillars look strikingly similar, and to a 19th-century naturalist, whose sight was the primary engine of taxonomic classification, grubs and caterpillars would have been almost interchangeable. Even now, The Birds of North America, in addition to offering these morsels of dietary information, dwells almost exclusively on how things look. Two hundred years of naturalist study hasn’t shaken the visual emphasis. The account continues through a visual description of “distinguishing characteristics” you can see, a “distribution” you can map, “systematics” you can visualize, “migration” you can plot, and “food habits” you can observe. Only after six to seven sections of visual information is there a section on sound. This isn’t surprising given that humans are fundamentally visual creatures, our vocabularies replete with synonyms for the look of things. But just because our language is unequipped for sound doesn’t make sound any less important. Birds are at least as sonic as they are visual. Their songs for calling to mates and offspring, for warning a flock spied by a predator, for socialization and rank, are varied if derivative. More than any other animal, the bird is defined by its voice, and sound can often pinpoint its place in avian natural history.
Despite all this, naturalists rely heavily on clumsy, even ridiculous mnemonics. Budney uses them to help him bin the thousands of bird songs he has somehow filed in his brain. “I take ownership of my own mnemonics,” he said—which is just as well, because half the time a mnemonic makes little intuitive sense. The greater pewee, a bird that ranges northern Mexico and southern Arizona, has a lilting call that some swear sounds like an extended, vowel-laced Jose Maria. The chickadee fell into its name because its call resembles a husky chick-a-dee-dee-dee (unlike its breeding song, a nasally Hey, Sweety). For the record, I heard none of this from either the recordings in the Macaulay Libraryor Budney’s full-throated, full-bodied renderings. Whenever a mnemonic really does stick, which is only when the call sounds like its spelling, the common name for the bird often becomes the mnemonic itself. The whippoorwill goes whiiiip poooor wiiiiilllll,and the phoebe goes phoebe. But if you’ve heard it before, even Jose Maria is just specific enough to spark aural memory. To the rest of us, pait, pait, pait is just pait, pait, pait, but to Budney the words summon a sound that immediately goes live in his head. The real trick, then, is not whether a sound can be spelled, but whether it can be remembered enough to identify it in the field. Ornithologists are revered for their ability to pick things out of the wild while standing completely still. For Budney, the transparency of sound makes biodiversity come to him. Often, to make an expedition is to stand in place.
Before vocalizations were recorded, field biologists relied exclusively on acoustic memory, and the mnemonics would jog the memories. Even today, with new archives minting and blessing thousands of recordings, some old-school biologists prefer their own experience, an encyclopedia of remembered sound. Greg Budney is part of this tradition of inculcated acoustic biology. Jack Bradbury, the director of the library, calls this skill animal sense. It first involves the ability to blend into nature, to become nearly invisible. But the more difficult part is to recognize sound. Animal sense is as much a talent for pinpointing a voice as it is the ability to get into the heart of a forest and hear it in the first place.
One of Budney’s mentors, the late Theodore Parker III, was the embodiment of animal sense. When I mentioned his name to any of the ornithologists I spoke to, their faces, almost without exception, became strangely serene. Van Remsen, who was a colleague of Parker’s at LSU,remembers seeing him sit in the museum’s archives for hours, listening to his own recordings. In the field, Parker could listen to sonic garble and tease apart individual strands of tone; 10 to 15 overlapping birds somehow existed at different depths for him. He could hear them all, together and separate, with the ear of a composer of polyphonic music. “He had an internal software package,” Van Remsen said. “It was humbling for us to have him listen to our recordings and uncover more species in the background of a single tape than we had identified in an entire day’s expedition.”
Parker devoted much of his life to rapid assessment of biodiversity in shrinking Peruvian rain forests. His particular contribution was acoustic censusing. Within 10 minutes of roping down into a dense thatch of Peruvian jungle from a helicopter, he could easily identify 90 to 95 percent of all birdcalls, which sometimes numbered as many as 500. Explorers in the field call this “ground-truthing.” On these Peruvian ground-truthing expeditions, Parker’s favorite haunt was ExplorNapo, a well-traveled base camp at the intersection of a number of deep rain forest trails. Tramping through mud in red Converse Hi Tops (he was an avid basketball fan), he would lead tour groups through the jungle listening for three species of Tolmomyias flycatcher so similar in plumage coloration and patterns they could only be distinguished by sound. On a trip taken June 14, 1983, Parker heard something he had never heard before: an unusual twittering that punctuated one of the standard flycatcher calls. He knew cold every birdcall in the area, and this wasn’t one of them. He understood that a variant song probably meant the emergence of a new species. Unlike most other birds, the flycatcher’s song is literally written into its DNA. Flycatchers have innate, perfectly reproducible voices, constant throughout the lifetime of a single individual. Deaf flycatchers raised in isolation sing their songs to perfection, untwining our anthropocentric notions of being deaf and dumb. It’s like knowing a language without learning it.
The variant song Parker heard was sung by a new species, Tolmomyias traylori, a flycatcher with an orange eye. The orange-eye detail was a physical marker that corroborated the auditory difference. But I had to wonder. If the new species had turned out to be visually identical to others on record, would it have been considered different based on sound alone? Trusting differences in the unseen is an exercise of the will. A hundred other naturalists would have ignored the unusual twitter,or at least chalked it up to a known bird’s momentary quiver. But Parker trusted his ears to peel back the layers of what he could see. Van Remsen believes that Parker’s detection of the new Tolmomyias flycatcher was the first and only instance of species discovery by sound alone.
Although Ted Parker is not the father of ornithology, many birders—especially those with connections to LSU and Cornell—consider him its greatest practitioner. Their respect has even worked its way into the biological literature. In 1997, Cornell’s Fitzpatrick named a newly discovered cinnamon-faced tropical flycatcher after Parker: Phylloscartes parkeri. But for most ornithologists, it’s not so much the intelligence behind Parker’s peculiar talent they admired as the time he spent in the field, the dedication and tenacity with which he went after sounds. Budney credits Parker with helping him understand the importance of documenting voice. “People sometimes criticized Parker for not publishing enough,” Budney said. “His response was always, ‘I want to go out there while I still can. There’s always time for theory later.’” Parker never had a chance to wax in theory. His life ended on a craggy Peruvian peak in 1993. He was flying with Alwyn Gentry, a master of tropical plant biology, to a remote site in Ecuador, scouting possible boundaries for a new forest reserve. Many naturalists consider that plane crash the single greatest loss of tropical field knowledge ever. The melodies in Parker’s head alone had immense value. But a complete download would be far from defining. Foremost, the tragedy was a loss of two determined personalities. Field biology nurtures a culture of patience, of sitting down and listening to life unfold. Parker spent his life staring into space, heeding only his immediate sonic universe. In some strange way, it was like choosing blindness.
The odd thing about the Macaulay collection is that its first sound—the song sparrow—was not recorded by a naturalist. The idea, circa 1929, was the brainchild of the media, namely Fox-Case Movietone News. No longer satisfied with silent reels of war footage, the Fox-Case Corporation was bent on splicing “tones” into movies. To test their technology, Fox-Case approached the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. A bird was a natural testing ground, the ultimate blend of musical tones and a twitching body. The first short film was simple: a common sparrow perched on a fence. For Fox-Case, the song sparrow demonstration was effective, a means to a profitable end, but for the Cornell ornithologists the naturalist potential in “tones” was an epiphany. Here was a new ability, a capacity to record sound, the defining character of so many birds. A new dimension entered our picture of biodiversity. Natural history at the time was largely the study of dead bodies. Most curators at natural history museums were still sorting through their colonial collections, the spoils of imperialist forays of men who brought back Gila monsters in driftwood cages. Nobody was thinking about sound. Yet there it was.
In 1929, sound recording technology—whether for motion pictures or natural history collections—was in its infancy. Naturalists had to cut acetate records in the field, a process known as direct disc recording. The original recording of the ivory-billed was cut on acetate, in a knee-deep bog of Louisiana sludge. Budney has a sealed container holding these original recordings. They’re no longer functional, but are kept as relics. When I asked if he would show me, he gingerly pulled the first recording of a natural sound out of its sleeve. For a moment he stood like a proud father, amazed at what he cradled in his arms. “This was their technology,” he said, shaking his head, as if adding: “and now their technology is our symbol of their legacy.” Still, a technological innovation in its infancy is potentially a powerful thing. Talkies went on to more than moderate success; for naturalists, however, sound was a light, noninvasive swab of the living environment. It was voyeuristic. Vocalizations are embedded in context, and though sound is disembodied, it captures a creature’s motivations in real time. And it is this real-time component, this lack of artifice and freedom from cages, that gives sound the quality of being truly natural. In other words, the ivory-billed is more alive inscribed into acetate than it is pinned in a glass case.
Toward the core of the building, away from the cinematic windows and past several audio archivists watching sound flash across their screens as waves, Budney led me to the heart of the Macaulay Library: the original recordings on reel-to-reel tape. The room felt vaguely antique, much older than the rest of the building. As I entered, I noticed that the air was drier and cooler and smelled faintly of technology—not the strong postdigital smell of chips and transistors, but the faint odor of old lacquer, acetate, and vinyl. The room was smaller than I had imagined. I had to remind myself several times that this small room really did house the sounds of 160,000 animals, the recorded voice of the planet. And it was all primary sources.
A library of books is a library of filtration, the end product of a process in which on-site knowledge is worded, shipped off to the press, and shelved as an archive of human perception. This place was different. These tapes were the very ones explorers took with them into the field. They sit here now largely untouched, no processing and no filtration, a bucket drawn from a large well of sonic experience, but containing water, not the vapor of its description.
The meat of the place is tape. The reels are cased in white boxes and filed onto rolling shelves. Their spines are all handwritten and arranged according to taxonomic classification. Reel-to-reel, in playback, the tape zips by at 15 inches per second, and the sound quality is unmatched, even by digital CD and DVD audio. As impressive as all of this tape is, it isn’t doing anybody any good sitting on a shelf in a climate-controlled room. In 1999, Jack Bradbury and Greg Budney coauthored a paper in Animal Behavior in which they appealed to individual collectors to entrust their recordings to the Macaulay Library. One of their main selling points was the creation of a uniform standard of distribution, a way to get these sounds out to the public and into the research community. “The cost of quality recording is that any one of us is likely to record only a limited number of species,” they wrote. “Clearly there are many questions … that can be solved only if researchers have access to a broader range of recordings than they themselves can collect.” They proposed the digitization of the entire pool—a process they knew would take years of painstaking effort transferring tape recordings into a digital format in real time. Though digitization would lower sound quality, Bradbury realized that his collection would have to speak the language of the Internet if it was to be heard. Many of the 80-year-old recordings are riddled with static and fade, like primary documents yellowed and tattered. The hard drive is simply a new binding. Tapes must be loaded and played. Sound must be filtered, delimited, and transferred. The process is slow and agonizing. The patience of biologists in the field is mirrored in the archivist’s lab. But it is patience of a different kind. It’s the patience of repetitive motion, of tolerating a certain level of automation and mindlessness. In a sense, the work of the Macaulay archivists, gatekeepers of a vast collective intelligence, isn’t that different from what Ted Parker achieved after all those years in the field. Their job is to recreate Ted Parker’s brain and mix it into the contributions of hundreds of other field biologists. They decide what the hard drives will remember, and what they will forget.
A library of sound, especially a digital library of sound, seems to cheapen the more mystical elements of Parker’s and Budney’s particular aural abilities. Spending a lifetime acquiring sound and binning knowledge is so much more human than clicking through a few hyperlinks and listening to a broken recording over cyber hiss. But even Budney acknowledges that the Internet is steering the evolution of the Macaulay Library. No one can hope to be a complete encyclopedia. A computer would not miss the 10 percent of bird species Parker inevitably missed as he dangled over the Peruvian rain forests. More important, the new digital technologies allow sharing of the acoustic information in a way that has never been possible. The Internet is beginning to fold the sounds of the Macaulay Library into the biodiversity stew already available in cyberspace: raw ecological data, specimen images, sketches, expert description and analysis of specimens, and discussion lists debating expert analysis. The hope is to achieve a cohesive picture, and to explore links between disparate data sets. The Internet is built for the type of accidental unity that sound technology brought to motion pictures and natural history. The point is to see what we can find. And when we can no longer find it in nature, the Macaulay Library and other natural history collections are all we really have.
Greg Budney is fond of saying that the library is “science’s copy” of the natural world. When he says “natural world” he means to distinguish it from our world, a place filled with cars and buildings and roads and cement. Our world is a place that has no animal sense. We are far from invisible, and animals don’t regard us with ambivalence. “There is an unbelievably rich world, which, if it’s lucky, is still running in parallel to ours,” he said. “And their lives, their behaviors, go on whether or not we’re there.” The caveat to this, of course, is that we don’t push our cement line too far without looking at what we’re paving over first. “I need to get out of the square walls of this office because those creatures aren’t waiting for me and my microphone. I can’t stand the feeling of knowing that I’ve missed momentous occasions in some creature’s life.” And if he’s missed it, in a sense we’ve all missed out on something too. Perhaps Budney was onto something when he said that most people want to know “that something exists” though they’ll probably never see it firsthand. Knowing that something exists makes you less likely to step on it. Budney and others like him are the natural world’s sonic messengers.
Back in the surround-sound mastering studio, Budney takes me to Texas City, Texas. A small town on Galveston Bay, 40 miles southeast of Houston, it is home to two oil refineries, a number of large acetylene tanks, and some of the most intense drilling on the Texas Gulf Coast. Texas City is the furthest thing from what most people would consider natural. But it is also home to the last vestiges of the Attwater’s prairie chicken, a bird that looks somewhat like a regular chicken except for two large yellow air sacks on either side of its throat, which the male displays during mating. The Attwater used to be fairly common, but now there are only 50 to 60 left, all of which are fenced into the Texas City Preserve, a sanctuary funded by the very oil companies that own the land around it. Male Attwaters are noisy in an otherworldly kind of way. To impress females, they attempt to outdo one another in a complex sequence that includes stomping the feet, inflating the air sacks, and fanning the wings. After turning down the lights, Budney let 12 of these dancing chickens loose.
The immediate sensation was of a freight train or a stampede. The males were all stomping their feet. I could feel the chickens around me and under my seat. I imagined them kicking up dust while the females preened between glances into the cloud. “This is just 12 chickens. Imagine what it used to sound like.” So I went back in time. A group of 100 males has gathered to display: all bravado, very brash. The pattering sound of males rushing one another and kicking up dirt climaxes in the woks! of one male towering over another only to be cowering from the next. The dominance hierarchy works itself out somewhere in the opaque plume. But I can still hear them: air sacks deflate to sound a chorus of overlapping tones that start high and end low, an unearthly resonance that evokes the calm between stars. When the cries tapered, I could hear a steady background roar, not a single pitch but more of a swishing in and out, Doppler-like. I turned to Budney. He looked me square in the eye and said, “highway.”
Highway? Why are there only 12 chickens on the recording? Why is there a highway practically running them over? What happened to nature? It’s easy to descend into a series of rants about how nature is not what it used to be, and how we’ll never see the natural world as it once was, and how some of nature’s greatest treasures bowed out completely unseen. But these views are tinged with irredeemable regret. Our definition of nature is changing, whether we want it to or not. Most people have it in their heads that Parker’s Peruvian rain forest is natural. The Great Barrier Reef, too, and the Florida Everglades—they all seem pretty natural. But does a place qualify as nature only if it’s pristine? Is the zoo animal any more natural than the stuffed one in a museum exhibit? Or is a small population of wild animals, bisected by an Interstate and inbreeding to the point of genetic suicide, any more natural than a zoo population? Nature is what’s left now, not the memory of what was. So if the Macaulay Library’s recording of the Attwater’s prairie chicken has a road running right through it, then that’s nature, take it or leave it.
I like it that you can hear the road. The sound of the road in the background, however faint, implies that our world is inextricably linked to theirs. Technically, there’s no way to lift the road out of the recording without diminishing the sound of the chickens. I’ve seen dozens of recent pictures of these birds wobbling across a short stretch of Texas plain, looking as pre-industrially natural as can be. But a picture is an abstraction, a construct lifted from some corner of reality. Sound is not so easily unmixed. To really see something as it is, to see the problem, you have to hear it first.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of American Scholar.