National parks are great spots to enjoy observing wildlife, but one of the challenges for many visitors is the question: "What bird (or animal) is that?"
Now there's a source of help in wildlife identification for both experts and amateurs: The "world's largest natural sound archive" has gone digital, and it's available on-line ... and free of charge.
Twelve Years of Work to Digitize the Collection
The Macaulay Library archive at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has completed a 12-year project to digitize the entire collection of archived analog recordings in the library, and it was a monumental undertaking. The collection, which dates back to 1929, contains nearly 150,000 audio recordings equaling more than 10 terabytes of data with a total run time of 7,513 hours.
About 9,000 species are represented in the collection. There's an emphasis on birds, but the collection also includes sounds of whales, elephants, frogs, primates, and more.
"In terms of speed and the breadth of material now accessible to anyone in the world, this is really revolutionary," says audio curator Greg Budney. "This is one of the greatest research and conservation resources at the Cornell Lab, and through its digitization we've swung the doors open on it in a way that wasn't possible 10 or 20 years ago."
A World-Class Collection
"Our audio collection is the largest and the oldest in the world," explained Macaulay Library Director Mike Webster. "Now, it's also the most accessible. We're working to improve search functions and create tools people can use to collect recordings and upload them directly to the archive. Our goal is to make the Macaulay Library as useful as possible for the broadest audience possible."
The library staff says the recordings are used by researchers as well as by birders trying to fine-tune their sound ID skills. They are also used in museum exhibits, movies, and commercial products such as smartphone apps'and they offer a great resource for park staff members developing interpretive programs.
A Valuable Resource for Many Uses
There are plenty of potential uses for wildlife fans planning a park visit, especially if the trip includes areas where new species might be encountered. The sounds of birds or animals can offer important clues to their identification'and some species are more likely to be heard than seen. Expert birders could record bird calls in the field, then compare them with audio files from the library to help verify new sightings.
You don't have to be a scientist to enjoy these recordings. If you're from the South, for example, and are making a summer trip to a northern site such as Acadia National Park, you might not be familiar with the haunting call of the Common loon. Once you've heard the audio file, however, you'll almost certainly recognize it in the wild.
Have you ever heard an elk "bugle" in the autumn? If not, the sound is pretty difficult to describe, and many people who do hear it for the first time say it's not what they expected. A preview of that unique bugle from the website will help prepare you for a visit to elk country, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park or Rocky Mountain National Park.
Searching the Collection
Searching for specific audio files on the site is easy and fast; just type the common name in the "search recordings by species" box on the website. More advanced users can also browse by taxonomy at this link.
Although you can listen to any of the audio files at no cost, it's not yet possible to download and save individual sound files from the entire collection. If you need copies of specific files for a project, it is possible to order them from the Library. Raw footage is available to students and researchers at no charge; there is a fee for commercial use or projects which required editing by staff members.
The website does offer some great audio and video guides which can be downloaded; some are free of charge, other guides are available for a reasonable fee.
Free digital guides include a "Bird Songs of Florida Sampler," an audio guide with accompanying photographs of over 100 species; "Voices of Eastern Backyard Birds," a compilation of free videos that provides an introduction to 14 common species found in backyards, parks, and suburban habitats throughout the eastern United States; and "Voices of Western Backyard Birds," a similar guide to 14 species common to the western U.S.
There's More to Come
The staff at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology isn't just coasting now that this major project is over, and they're continuing to expand the collection. Audio curator Budney notes, "Now that we've digitized the previously archived analog recordings, the archival team is focusing on new material from amateur and professional recordists from around the world to really, truly build the collection."
Finally, the site's extensive collection isn't limited to audio files'there are some stunning videos available as well, such as this footage of a Pileated Woodpecker feeding its young and underwater views of a Green Turtle.
Even if you aren't interested in identification of wildlife in the field, the site offers plenty of appeal. "It's just plain fun to listen to these sounds," says Budney. "Have you heard the sound of a walrus underwater? It's an amazing sound!"
Amazing indeed...and that's a good descripton of this entire project.