The Birth of Wildlife Sound Recording
research by Cheryl Tipp



The focus of the first wildlife publications was, unsurprisingly, birdsong. Each disc would normally contain one uninterrupted recording of a singing bird (or one on each side for double-sided discs), which had been selected based on the aesthetic nature of its song. No additional information was offered explaining the role of birdsong in the life of a species, and only the most pleasing vocalisations were deemed worthy of publication.

Within a few years 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.

Reich had touched briefly on the subject of mimicry in birdsong when ‘Canary – taught to sing like a Nightingale’ was published in 1913. The first dedicated study of mimicry appeared almost two decades later when ‘The Song of the Lyrebird’ was released in Australia. ‘The Song of the Lyrebird’ (1932), recorded under the supervision of amateur film maker Ray Littlejohns, included a spoken commentary which guided the listener through the various imitations performed by a Superb Lyrebird. This species has long been considered one of the finest songsters to be found in Australia and its ability to mimic other sounds is second to none This record was also significant because the songs featured on this disc were the first ever recordings to be made in the Australian bush of a wild bird in its natural habitat. This talented individual mimicked species such as the Kookaburra, Australian Thrush and Eastern Whipbird to perfection and as both the natural and imitated songs produced by the Superb Lyrebird are pleasant to listen to, this clearly made the song an ideal recording subject. The repertoire of other notable mimics such as the Northern Mockingbird of North America would be used to create similar records that celebrated mimicry in birdsong over the coming years.

The ability of particular cage birds to accurately mimic the human voice led to several gramophone records being published in the early – mid 20th century. Hearing a Budgerigar recite nursery rhymes or give his home address created a novel listening experience and seemed to capture the curiosity of the general public. The vast majority of publications focused on one individual, for example ‘Billy Peach, the Talking Budgerigar’ (1940) and ‘Joey the Budgie’ (1952), but “I’ll Give you Talk Like This” (1938) included several short excerpts of talking birds.

The most famous talking Budgerigar of them all was Sparkie Williams. This incredible Guinness World Record holder was said to have a vocabulary of more than five hundred words and won the BBC International Cage Word Contest in 1958. His winning performance led to a record being produced of edited dialogue between himself and a human interviewer (Philip Marsden) which is quite something even today. His owner was Newcastle-born Mattie Williams who applied an almost military approach to Sparkie’s vocal training. When listening to ‘Sparkie Williams, the 1958 Champion Talking Budgerigar’, traces of his Geordie accent are clearly audible.

…to be continued

-Cheryl Tipp

Cheryl Tipp

Wildlife sounds curator at British Library.