The Birth of Wildlife Sound Recording
research by Cheryl Tipp


Recording in the Wild

Cherry Kearton was responsible for the first recordings of wild birds when he captured the song of a Nightingale and a few phrases from a Song Thrush in England in 1900.

The first commercial recordings of a wild animal came about, not through the tireless work of a naturalist, but through the suggestion of a musician. Beatrice Harrison was a respected British cellist who had made broadcasting history in 1924 when the sounds of her playing alongside a wild Nightingale in Oxted, Surrey were transmitted live by the BBC. Harrison believed the Nightingales were stimulated by the sound of her cello and the popularity of this first broadcast led to several similar programmes being made over the next few years.  The Gramophone Company agreed to publish a selection of pieces featuring Beatrice Harrison with “her” Nightingales and in May 1927 the label’s mobile van recorded what would become five double-sided discs that were widely circulated around the world. We will never know whether the birds were encouraged to sing by Harrison’s cello or were simply delivering their musical messages at times of the day when they would be most vocally active anyway. What we do know is that these recordings represent another key landmark in the history of wildlife sound recording.

Novelty Acts and Canary Choirs

The tradition of keeping canaries as cage birds is a long one. Their strong, varied songs and penchant for imitation made them extremely desirable as pets. The German canary trade was one of the most respected in Europe and birds reared in Germany were highly sort after. Richard Avis said in his book of 1872, ‘The Canary: its history, varieties, management, and breeding, “The Germans, who care little for either the form or colour of their birds, pay great attention to their song and we advise all those who wish to fully develop the good qualities of young canaries to place them under the tuition of a German bird.”

Carl Reich kept canaries in his Bremen aviary and several of these birds were recorded for publication. In some cases, the canary recordings were combined with folk songs and these records from the late 1920s represent some of the earliest examples of fusion between music and wildlife recordings for the commercial market.

Musical Dawson’s Famous Choir of Canaries became the star ingredient of eleven records released in the UK from 1932 – 1933. Dawson’s singing canaries were recorded and then mixed with a pre-recorded small orchestra to create unique versions of ‘The Blue Danube’, ‘O Sole Mio’ and ‘Tales of Hoffman’ among others. A wonderful British Pathé newsreel film from 1938 showed Musical Dawson accompanied by a choir of nine caged canaries while he played ‘In a Monastary Garden’.

In the USA, Lorraine Evon & The Golden Bird became a popular Vaudeville act in the 1920s. A photograph of the young Miss Evon posing with the canary perched on the end of her violin can be found in the photographic collection of the drama critic and theatre promoter James Willis Sayre, who collected images of stars performing in Seattle from around 1900 to 1955. Brunswick released a double-sided record of the duo in 1930, which featured ‘The Canary Polka’ and ‘The Birds and the Brook’ (Figure 2).

An equivalent music hall act in Britain was The Auklands and Little Tweet. Little Tweet was dubbed the ‘Canary Caruso’ in light of his vocal virtuosity and skill, and the Auklands toured the music hall circuit from 1924 onwards. The singing canary would accompany Betty Aukland on the concertina and proved to be such an entertaining act that a record of Little Tweet performing ‘Bells of St Mary’s’ and Londonderry Air’ with the Auklands was released by Edison Bell in 1929. This feathered performer became quite the celebrity and was used in marketing campaigns to endorse products such as Capern’s bird food.

…to be continued

-Cheryl Tipp

Cheryl Tipp

Wildlife sounds curator at British Library.