Did You Hear That? I Think It Was A Walrus
Stand aside Beyonce, there's a new sound in town. More than 9,000 sounds, to be more precise. The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has just finished digitizing its huge archive of wildlife sounds and made it available online.
"It represents the voice of the world — all the voices of the world," Greg Budney, audio curator for the archive, tells NPR's Scott Simon. Among the vast collection are birds, mammals, insects and amphibians, Budney says, all made available "to anyone who has an interest in nature, in conservation and in the world around them."
The library's holdings total more than 7,000 hours of sounds, the result of an 80-year collaboration between the scientific community and the library's "volunteer collaborators: private individuals who record for a hobby, really with no other purpose than engaging in science," Budney says.
Some highlights from the collection: the clarinet-like cry of the indri lemur, which the archive describes as the "best candidate to appear on a John Coltrane record," and the spine-tingling call of the common loon.
In compiling such a vast collection, Budney has hit upon a few favorites — like the tuneful call of the musician wren, a small brown bird found throughout the Amazon region. "It walks along the forest floor," Budney says, "flipping over leaves looking for insects."
Then there's the walrus, one of Budney's favorite mammalian recordings. The sound produced to attract females, he says, "starts out with these methodical beats — and then what sounds like a gong or banging on a garbage can lid."
The brown-backed solitaire, found in Mexico and Central America, also has a distinct call — one that Budney considers among the world's most beautiful bird songs.
The brown-backed solitaire and musician wren images by John S. Dunning are from the VIREO Collection of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Audio files are courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
[SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Beyonce, stand aside for just one moment please. The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has just finished digitizing its huge archive of wildlife sounds and made it available online. This includes, direct from the Adirondacks, the common loon.
(SOUNDBITE OF A LOON)
SIMON: Which the archives says make spines tingle. Most likely to be mistaken for aliens arriving, they say it's the Curl-crested Manucode from New Guinea.
(SOUNDBITE OF MANUCODE CALL)
SIMON: And there's this one, best candidate to appear on a John Coltrane record.
(SOUNDBITE OF INDRI CALL)
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
That's the Indri, with a voice describing the press release as part moan, part jazz clarinet. Greg Budney is audio curator for the archive. He joins us from Cornell. Thanks so much for being with us.
GREG BUDNEY: It's a pleasure to be with you.
SIMON: And what makes this archive distinctive?
BUDNEY: It's the world's largest archive of wildlife sounds. What's really distinctive about it, what's incredible, is it represents the voice of the world - all the voices of the world. There are over 9,000 different species represented in the library, and that encompasses birds, mammals, insects, amphibians. But I think for the first time we're now able to swing the doors open on the archive and make all of these sounds available to anyone who has an interest in nature, in conservation, in the world around them.
SIMON: I'm going to give you a chance to draw our attention to some of your favorites.
BUDNEY: One of my all time favorite recordings is the Plainfin Midshipman. And this is a sound that's produced under water, and it's a sound from a fish.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAINFIN MIDSHIPMAN SINGING)
BUDNEY: It's not a sound you can hear standing along the shoreline. So if you're in Sausalito, California where the fish are known to inhabit the waters, you can't hear anything when you're standing on land. But if you live in a houseboat, you're directly coupled to the water. In fact, you live in what amounts to a speaker cabinet, so when a male Plainfin Midshipman sings, you're home resonates with sound.
SIMON: Where do these sounds come from? Is there any one answer to that?
BUDNEY: The holdings of the Macaulay Library are really the result of a collaboration of the last 80 years, between the scientific community and what we refer to as our volunteers, volunteer collaborators - private individuals who record for a hobby, really with no other purpose than engaging in science.
SIMON: I gather you've got a sound there from a bird who - well, we would say the bird is impersonating a movie star of some note.
BUDNEY: Indeed. It's the Tui of New Zealand.
(SOUNDBITE OF TUI)
SIMON: It sure sounds like R2-D2.
BUDNEY: It does. In fact, Ben Burtt Junior, the sound designer who created the voice or R2-D2, feels the same. I played it for him out at Skywalker a number of years ago and one of the other staff members walking by heard it and assumed that Ben was playing the sound for me. Ben told me it took him three months to develop R2-D2's voice, and here it is in nature.
(SOUNDBITE OF TUI)
SIMON: Let me ask you about a - how do I say this nicely? A mating call among especially large beings?
(SOUNDBITE OF WALRUS MATING CALL)
SIMON: If you're a female walrus, this is the voice or Brad Pitt.
BUDNEY: It is indeed, and this male is giving a beautiful delivery of that sound. He starts out with these methodical beats, and then what sounds like a gong or banging on a garbage can lid, I'm not sure, depending upon one's interpretation.
SIMON: Next sound, let me ask you about a bird that seems to be a supremely accomplished musician.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICIAN WREN)
SIMON: Very tuneful. Who is this?
BUDNEY: This is the Musician Wren, which is a small brown bird found throughout Amazonia. And it walks along the forest floor flipping open leaves, looking for insects.
SIMON: It's been brought to my attention that today is Groundhog Day. Anything you can give us?
BUDNEY: For you, for Groundhog Day, we have the vocalization of a groundhog right at the entrance to its burrow, a lovely little whistle.
(SOUNDBITE OF GROUNDHOG WHISTLING)
SIMON: And I can't tell if that means that we have, you know, what is it, seven more weeks of winter or not, but...
BUDNEY: It was still in the burrow when he delivered it, so...
SIMON: So you have to be out of the burrow for that, right?
BUDNEY: One would assume so.
SIMON: Yeah. Greg Budney is an audio curator for the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have just finished digitizing their archive. There's a link on our website at npr.org. Greg, thanks so much for being with us.
BUDNEY: It was a pleasure to be with you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC AND ANIMAL SOUNDS)
SIMON: Are the animals singing or just lip-syncing? You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.