Recording and Listening Practices in the Biology of Bird Song

Main researcher: Joeri Bruyninckx

cornell recordists 1935This project explores listening as a strategy of inquiry in the scientific field-site. Since the late nineteenth century, ornithologists have attempted to make and use sound recordings to study birds’ singing behavior scientifically in the field. Tracing the material practices of scientific recording across locales such as the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Cambridge department of Zoology, this project examines how they were crafted into a legitimate scientific technique.

Yet the field-site was never exclusively scientific domain, nor was sound recording ever an exclusively scientific practice. Birds were being recorded and studied in musical notations, on gramophones, magnetic tape or spectrograms, by amateur birdwatchers, hobbyist sound hunters, recording engineers from public broadcasters (such as the BBC) or publishing companies, and even musicians, and biologists sought their collaboration and expertise when recording in the field. At the same time, this required the production, use and form of recordings, as well as the reliability of listening reports to be negotiated.

Methodologically, this project focuses on the US, UK and Germany between 1880 and 1980. It draws upon archival sources, such as correspondence, diaries, manuscripts, field- and laboratory notes or editing forms, as well as recordings, published literature and oral history interviews. These were collected at the British Library, the Tierstimmenarchiv at the Berlin Humboldt Universität, Cambridge University, the BBC and Cornell University.

Related Publications:

Joeri Bruyninckx (2012), “Sound Sterile. Making Scientific Field Recordings in Ornithology”, in: Trevor Pinch & Karin Bijslistening-in-the-fieldterveld (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 127-150.

Joeri Bruyninckx (2013), Sound Science: Recording and Listening in the Biology of Bird Song, 1880-1980. PhD Thesis, Maastricht University, Maastricht.

Joeri Bruyninckx (2014), “Silent City: Listening to Birds in Urban Nature”, in: Matthew Gandy & B.J. Nilsen (eds.), The Acoustic City. Berlin: Jovis, pp. 42-48.

Joeri Bruyninckx (2015), “Trading twitter: Amateur recorders and economies of scientific exchange at the Cornell Library of Natural Sounds“, in: Social Studies of Science vol. 45:3, pp. 344-370.

Joeri Bruyninckx (2018), Listening in the Field: Recording and the Science of Birdsong. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Media Appearances and Outreach:
Joeri Bruyninckx (interviewed by Pieter van der Wielen, in Dutch) on the popular science show Labyrint on Dutch Radio 1, April 14 2013. Listen.

Joeri Bruyninckx, interviewed for the Maastricht University Youtube channel in April 2013.

“Beter tien vogels in de hand dan één in de lucht”, article about the dissertation of Joeri Bruyninckx in Observant (independent weekly magazine of Maastricht University) by Maurice Timmerman, April 2013. Read online.

This research has also inspired the musical performance “The Wandering Kingdoms” by Oscar Santillan.