Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

08 August 2011

Animal Language

Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife Sounds Curator, writes:

Early-wildlife-recordingsThe primary function of the first commercially available wildlife recordings was to impress and entertain the listener. Birds renowned for the beauty of their songs, such as the Nightingale and Blackbird, made obvious recording subjects and for the first time ever, people could listen to a recording of an actual bird, albeit a captive one, from the comfort of their own home.

Within a few years however, the evolution of this genre had begun to slowly gain momentum and it wasn’t long before publishers and recordists recognised the potential for expansion and began to look beyond the simple beauty of birdsong. Sound recording could be used to demonstrate various elements of acoustic communication and in doing so, could add a scientific element to the listening experience.

Documenting a species’ vocabulary incorporated an important scientific element into a publication as it illustrated that animals could utilise many different vocalisations to express specific functions and meanings. Possibly the best example of this was ‘Animal Language’, a sound book by Ludwig Koch and the evolutionary biologist Sir Julian Huxley in 1938, which is included in Early Wildlife Recordings.

 Animal Language

The publication was constructed in such a way that the disc complimented the book and vice versa, and neither could be fully appreciated without the other. This unison of text, image and sound created the first detailed consideration of animal behaviour available to the general public, with particular emphasis placed on the importance of acoustic communication within the animal kingdom. It also allowed the authors to explain the process of wildlife sound recording with all of its challenges and requirements. Ludwig Koch travelled around Whipsnade and London Zoos for several months in late 1937 – early 1938 using a portable recording studio in the form of a seven ton van. A microphone connected to a long lead would be attached to the required enclosure, meaning that the van could be positioned out of view so as not to disturb the animal in question. The book contains a wonderful passage that will resonate with all wildlife recordists and tells the tale of Koch’s attempts to record wolves at Whipsnade. Huxley wrote:

The wolf pack at Whipsnade can only be described as disobliging. As the head keeper explained, the wolves usually start their concerted howling when they hear a particular siren which goes at five each afternoon. But when the microphone was put in position, the siren failed to elicit any response. The wolves looked towards Mr Koch, who was standing by it, with a sort of sly defiance, but remained entirely mute”.

One can sympathise.


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