The History of Bird Sound Recording at Cornell

Speaker: Randolph Scott Little

This presentation will trace the history of bird sound recording from the early days of optical soundtracks for talkies during the Great Depression to the modern era of using a smartphone and the internet.  The epicenter of this development in the United States, indeed in the world, was and is at the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University.  The speaker has been directly involved in that activity for the past seven decades, working alongside the original principals, learning from them and passing along that knowledge to new generations of bird sound recordists.

Randolph Scott Little grew up in the village of Forest Home, nestled between the campus of Cornell University and the uplands including Sapsucker Woods.  The two-classroom Forest Home Elementary School (which now serves as headquarters for the Cornell Plantations) was located nearly in the shadow of Fernow Hall, which housed the Lab of Ornithology.  After school, Randy frequently ventured to Fernow Hall, where the inquisitive youngster was welcomed, befriended and encouraged to cultivate an understanding and appreciation for birds by Arthur A. “Doc” Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg.

That understudy continued throughout his secondary schooling years, and prepared him well to enter Cornell.  So well in fact that Dr. Kellogg advised him to forego the inevitable redundancy of undergraduate ornithology and instead study electrical engineering, to better understand the physical principles and technology for the study of biological acoustics.  Throughout his undergraduate years he served as student assistant to Dr. Kellogg, maintaining the Library of Natural Sounds and its equipment.

Dr. Kellogg next advised gaining industrial experience at a leading research laboratory, such as Bell Labs, which he did, although his adviser probably didn’t anticipate that becoming a 37-year career in itself.  Throughout that career, Little’s weekends and vacations were frequently spent in the pursuit of bird sound recordings, which he contributed to the Library of Natural Sounds, now the Macaulay Library.

Jim Gulledge Dr. Kellogg’s successor, enlisted his help as a participant/leader in an Earthwatch expedition to record Chiricahuan birds in 1977, and subsequently invited him to become a non-board member of the Lab’s steering committee for the Library of Natural Sounds.  In 1987 Ted Parker suggested that Little be asked to help teach others to make better recordings, and has taught in the Lab’s now-famous Natural Sound Recording Workshop ever since, passing along many tips originally picked up from Dr. Kellogg and adding many of his own.

Little is a life elective member of the American Ornithological Society, a former director of the Laboratory of Ornithology, the New Jersey Audubon Society and the Cornell Society of Engineers, and a life senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.





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