The Calls of the Wild

Posted on Jan 24, 2019 in News

The Calls of the Wild | Kansas Alumni magazine | Mark Robbins
The Macaulay Library boasts the world’s largest archive of animal sounds, and Mark Robbins, collection manager of ornithology at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, is now its most prolific contributor.

In 40 years of chasing birds worldwide, Robbins has amassed more than 11,000 field recordings of avian vocalizations—birdsongs—every one now in the Macaulay, where they make up 3 percent of the Cornell University library’s recordings.

Researchers use the sounds to study many scientific topics, including how climate change is affecting bird ranges. That’s the subject of recent investigations that tapped some of Robbins’ first recordings, of chickadees, made in 1978.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction that you’re adding to the science,” says Robbins, who has discovered six new species and had one—the Ecuadorian Tapaculo (Scytalopus robbinsi)—named for him.

But there are personal rewards, too.

“I got into this as a kid, long before I appreciated the science,” says the longtime bird lover. “Migration still brings me to my knees: That on a spring day in May you get a south wind and overnight all these birds who’ve been migrating for two months from the Amazon basin show up in your backyard—I love that. It gives you a whole different perspective on the life of the planet.”

Indeed, it’s good to know there are still some tweets that can set the heart aflutter.

—Steven Hill


Listen to the bird calls below:

Northern Bobwhite

A popular bird with birdwatchers and sportsmen, “gentleman Bob” as he’s known in some parts, is easily identified by his distinctive two-noted whistle. An inhabitant of field and wood edge, the ground-dwelling quail has suffered major population declines in recent decades. The lovely song heard in the background of this recording is the Field Sparrow.

Kentucky Warbler

Despite its state-specific name, Kentucky Warblers are found as a breeder across the eastern United States and as far west as eastern Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. This one was recorded at the Fitch Natural History Reservation on the KU Field Station, the University’s biological field station north of Lawrence.

Black-billed Mountain Toucan

A denizen of the montane cloud forests in the Andes of South America from Venezuela south to Peru, Black-billed Mountain Toucans are known to range over long distances when foraging.

“The Calls of the Wild” was originally published in Kansas Alumni magazine, issue No. 1, 2019.

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