For Cornell Library "The Time Of The Singing Of Birds Is Come"

A Bali Starling, An Endangered Species Whose Song Was Recorded By Linda Macaulay.

The goal of poets is to make words sing. And so what better to inspire them than the sublime sounds, expressed so casually, so naturally, so sweetly, by the songbird? It comes as no surprise, then, that nearly every major poet has written a poem in praise of avian warblers. From Catallus to Chaucer to Keats to Collins, all are spellbound by the music of the skies. They try, with all the tools at their command, to conjure up in words the notes that flow so effortlessly from far simpler creatures.

A Rust and Yellow Tanager, Its Song Is Another Of Linda Macaulay’s First Cuts.

What makes this situation far more vexing for today’s aspiring poets, is that their time spent communing with nature is often short. Since they compose on a keyboard, requiring electricity or a quickly-drained battery, prolonged exposure to the melodies of the meadow may seem a distant dream. But thanks, in large part to a passionate, intrepid, and adventuresome couple, the song of the lark, and thousands and thousands of other calming coos, are just a mouse-click away. Wannabe wordsmiths, get thee (virtually) to the Macaulay Library of Sound.

William and Linda Macaulay.
(Photo Courtesy of City University of New York.)
Not created expressly to produce poetry, what was formerly known as the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology‘s Library of Sound, has recently been renamed in honor of two of its foremost contributors, William and Linda Macaulay. The Macaulay Library of Sound is the world’s largest collection of zoological sounds, featuring audio (and secondarily video) recordings of over 9,000 species of birds, mammals, and insects. All of the sounds are available online, free of charge.

A Vermiculated Fishing Owl, The Only Known Photograph Of This Species, Captured By William Macaulay in Borneo In 1995. Its Bird Call Is A “First Cut” Recorded by Linda Macaulay.

Linda Macaulay has devoted 23 years of her life to recording bird songs. To date, she has captured the calls and songs of 2,668 species of birds, or nearly 30% of the known species worldwide. She has traveled from her home in Greenwich, Connecticut to 50 countries around the globe in search of the sounds of the rarest birds in the world. And Ms. Macaulay’s recordings, often obtained at great personal risk, have all been added to the Cornell University database. (Her husband William, a billionaire venture capitalist, accompanies her whenever possible. For him birding is a “quiet and relaxing” respite from the madding crowd. His monetary contributions to the Macaulay Library of Sound have been substantial.)

A Whitehead’s Trogon, One Of The Species Whose Song Was first Recorded By Linda Macaulay.

The globe-trotting Ms. Macaulay’s passion for capturing “first cuts,” the term used for the initial recording of the sounds of a particular species, has taken her to parts of the world that tourists seldom see. In Rwanda she traipsed through waist deep swamps in search of the Shoebill. On another trip to Africa, in Gabon, she spelunked several caverns seeking the Gray-necked Rockfowl. Sometimes the challenges of her travel are not just geographical: in Papua, New Guinea she was surrounded by a band of men brandishing spears. In Ethiopia she braved the modern version of the same behavior: every man who had reached his teens carried an AK-47. With typical understatement Macaulay remarks that she and her husband “have a different risk profile than most people.” All of this daring-do has paid off handsomely for the Library of Sound: Ms. Macaulay believes there are at least 10 species she alone has recorded, these include the Whitehead’s Trogon from Borneo, and the Rust and Yellow Tanager from Argentina.

The Shoebill, Whose Song Was Recorded In The Swamps Of Rwanda.

On April 8, 2010 Linda Macaulay will be honored at the Paley Center for Media in New York City with Cornell’s prestigious Arthur A. Allen Award (.pdf format), which honors ornithologists whose work specifically benefits the general public. She is particularly pleased to receive this recognition because she believes the free, online Library of Sound is a singular achievement: “A person in any country can access a bird sound digitally for free,” she told Anne W. Semmes of the Greenwich Citizen. “It’s like looking for a book — you can go online and hear all the sounds… You don’t have to be a scientist.”

That should be music to the ears of laboratory-leery poets everywhere. And in case some versifiers still aren’t sold on the poetical virtues of bird songs, (and in honor of April’s status as National Poetry Month) this piece will close with a few examples of how the Lullaby of Birdland has freed some of our greatest writers to take wing and soar:

Stray Birds #1 by Rabindranath Tagore.

Stray birds of summer come to my window
to sing and fly away.
And yellow leaves of autumn,
which have no songs,
flutter and fall there with a sigh.

A Yellow-eared Toucanet, One Of Macaulay’s Favorites Of The Birds She’s Recorded.

Excerpt from: Mockingbirds by Mary Oliver.

This morning
two mockingbirds
in the green field
were spinning and tossing
the white ribbons
of their songs
into the air.
I had nothing
better to do
than listen.
I mean this

Little Bird by An Anonymous Celtic Poet.

Little bird! O little bird!
I wonder at what thou doest,
Thou singing merry far from me,
I in sadness all alone!

Little bird! O little bird!
I wonder at how thou art
Thou high on the tips of branching boughs,
I on the ground a-creeping!

Little bird! O little bird!
Thou art music far away,
Like the tender croon of the mother loved
In the kindly sleep of death.

Excerpt from: Ode to Bird Watching by Pablo Neruda.

You can hear them
like a heavenly
rustle or movement.
They converse
with precision.
They repeat
their observations.
They brag
of how much they do.
They comment
on everything that exists.

A Rufous Whistler, Another Species Recorded by Linda Macaulay For The Library Of Sound.

For the House Sparrow, in Decline by Paul Farley.

Your numbers fall and it’s tempting to think
you’re deserting our suburbs and estates
like your cousins at Pompeii;
that when you return
to bathe in dust and build your nests again
in a roofless world where no one hears your cheeps,
only a starling’s modem mimicry
will remind you of how you once supplied
the incidental music of our lives.

Excerpt From: Ode To A Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
Rain-awakened flowers,
All that ever was Joyous, and clear,
and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

Excerpt from: Caged Bird by Maya Angelou.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

An Eastern Nicator, One Of Linda Macaulay’s Favorite African Songbirds.

Unknown Bird by W.S. Merwin.

Out of the dry days
through the dusty leaves
far across the valley
those few notes never
heard here before

one fluted phrase
floating over its
wandering secret
all at once wells up
somewhere else

and is gone before it
goes on fallen into
its own echo leaving
a hollow through the air
that is dry as before

where is it from
hardly anyone
seems to have noticed it
so far but who now
would have been listening

it is not native here
that may be the one
thing we are sure of
it came from somewhere
else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for
no one who is here
hoping to be heard
by another of its own
unlikely origin

trying once more the same few
notes that began the song
of an oriole last heard
years ago in another
existence there

it goes again tell
no one it is here
foreign as we are
who are filling the days
with a sound of our own

The Gray-necked Rockfowl, Recorded In The Caves Of Gabon.

Excerpt from: Birds Of Passage by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I hear the cry
Of their voices high
Falling dreamily through the sky,
But their forms I cannot see.

O, say not so!
Those sounds that flow
In murmurs of delight and woe
Come not from wings of birds.

They are the throngs
Of the poet’s songs,
Murmurs of pleasures, and pains, and wrongs,
The sound of winged words.

This is the cry
Of souls, that high
On toiling, beating pinions, fly,
Seeking a warmer clime,

From their distant flight
Through realms of light
It falls into our world of night,
With the murmuring sound of rhyme.

The Elusive Iraq Babbler, Found In Syria On The Euphrates River.

To The Cuckoo by William Wordsworth.

O Blithe New-comer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice.
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?

While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear,
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off, and near.

Though babbling only to the Vale,
Of sunshine and of flowers,
Thou bringest unto me a tale
Of visionary hours.

Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery;

The same whom in my school-boy days
I listened to; that Cry
Which made me look a thousand ways
In bush, and tree, and sky.

To seek thee did I often rove
Through woods and on the green;
And thou wert still a hope, a love;
Still longed for, never seen.

And I can listen to thee yet;
Can lie upon the plain
And listen, till I do beget
That golden time again.

O blessed Bird! the earth we pace
Again appears to be
An unsubstantial, faery place;
That is fit home for Thee!