Recording America's Rarest Bird

The story of a 1935 expedition to find the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

January 23, 2015
Recording equipment in a wooden truck in a swamp

The 1935 Cornell-American Museum of Natural History Expedition criss-crossed the United States for over six months, recording a variety of birds and their calls at a time when the very ability to capture outdoor recordings of animals was novel. None of the material they gathered, though, has proved more historically significant than a set of photos, motion pictures, and sound recordings of a nesting pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers made over a few days in early April.

The ivory-bill is one of the most storied birds in American history because of it’s incredible rarity. Just when scientific authorities think it is extinct, one is spotted. This cycle has repeated itself several times in the last 150 years, most recently in 2005. But these 1935 materials remain the most recent detailed and undisputed documents of living ivory-billed woodpeckers.

You can hear the original 1935 recordings, some of which are incorporated into this piece, at the Macaulay Library here. The Lab has also created a landing page for their past efforts of trying to find ther bird here. James (Jim) Tanner’s field notes from the 1935 expedition can be found here in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University.

For time, this segment simplifies many of the details of this trip, including who was involved, how long they traveled, the equipment used, etc. For more information on the trip and the Cornell Ornithology Lab in general, here is a very brief bibliography of some of the sources that were a direct or indirect influence on this piece:

  • Allen, A.A. “Hunting with a Microphone the Voices of Vanishing Birds.” National Geographic 71 (1937): 696–723.
  • Bales, Stephen Lyn. Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, 1935–1941. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010.
  • Brand, Albert R. “Recording Sounds of Wild Birds.” The Auk 49, no. 4 (October 1, 1932): 436–39.
  • ———. “The 1935 Cornell-American Museum Ornithological Expedition.” The Scientific Monthly 41, no. 2 (August 1935): 187–90.
  • Bruyninckx, Joeri. “Sound Sterile: Making Scientific Field Recordings in Ornithology.” In The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, edited by T. J Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, 127–50. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Mundy, Rachel. “Birdsong and the Image of Evolution.” Society & Animals 17, no. 3 (June 2009): 206–23.

Additional credits: Jim Tanner's voice by Joe Hardke; sound design and magnetic tape manipulation by Caryl Owen.

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Comments

The Tanners were our neighbors on Little Switzerland Road. We built our house in 1961. Jim died in 1991, and Nancy died at the age of 96 in June, 2013. She gave us a copy of the book as a Christmas present when it was first written. What a fascinating story! The Tanners were an amazing couple and wonderful neighbors. Jim has certainly left a legacy with his work about the bird.

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