WOMEN SHAPING HISTORY 2011
Linda Macaulay, Philanthropist,
What inspired you to pursue your current career? As a child I was always drawn to birds, whether I was watching them in the back yard or drawing them. I have always loved to be outdoors — not sunning on the beach — but rather walking and looking at things.
I was always good at science and math. I majored in biology in college. I was fortunate to take one of the first ecology classes offered and my professor took the class on a field trip to the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge to watch birds. I was hooked.
However, there were no jobs studying birds in those days. I worked in the investment field for many years. And then I got very lucky and met someone that changed my life. Greg Budney, curator of the sound library at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, led a bird-watching tour to Kenya in 1987. My husband Bill and I went on that tour. Greg took his Nagra tape recorder with him everywhere he went — that is saying something since the old Nagras weighed about 18 pounds! I had never been exposed to sound recording and in fact did not know very many bird sounds. It was not something you could learn very well from a book and I had never focused on individual sounds before. Greg got my attention. Now with modern-day technologies, especially sounds and pictures available online and on cell phones, learning sounds is so much easier and fun.
The Lab of Ornithology runs a sound recording workshop every year. I signed up for the course, bought the best tape recorder and microphone I could afford, and started working in the field.
Challenges & Resolutions: The biggest challenge I faced was learning to listen and hear the sounds. Most people are visual learners but we all have great ability to hear, listen to and learn sounds — something we don’t focus on or think we are good at doing. Most people, including me, might go out in their backyard and think, “I can’t figure out which bird is making which sound.” However, almost everyone’s brain processes sound very well. An example of this is answering the telephone. You automatically know the sound of the voices of your family, your friends, and people you work with. You usually don’t stop and think, “who am I talking to?” unless the connection is bad or you don’t know the person. This is actually very difficult for your brain to process. And if you can do it, which we all can, you can learn the bird sounds, too.
Accomplishments You’re Proudest Of: I have dedicated the past 20 years to the study of ornithology and to the support of wildlife. As a research associate of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology I have been able to travel the world recording bird and animal sounds and documenting their behavior and geographic variation. I have recorded thousands of sounds from 2,660 species of birds, in over 50 countries, on six continents along with numerous animal and other natural sounds, amassing one of the largest collections in the world. My work has resulted in the first recordings ever made in the world of a number of species like Whitehead’s Trogan from Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo, to Rust and Yellow Tanager in Argentina as well as many range extensions, including work that led to the discovery of a species new to science, Telephorus dohertyi, Four-colored Bush-Shrike, from Gabon, West Africa. My collection is housed and cataloged at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where it is free to anyone anywhere in the world to access online. Receiving the prestigious Arthur Allen Award in Ornithology from Cornell in 2010 for my work and contribution to the field of Ornithology was a great honor.
Most Influential Mentors: Greg Budney, the Curator of Sounds at the Macaulay Library at the Lab, not only started me on the road to studying birds but also encouraged me at all steps of the process. He and Bob Grotke, an amazing engineer at the Lab, trained me to understand the physics of sound, how recorders work, what the technical limits are and how to work in the field to make the best recordings possible.
I was introduced to Ted Parker by Greg Budney. Ted Parker, a renowned ornithologist who worked in South America for most of his career, kept telling me that I could learn the sounds and make great recordings. He was so legendary that one could have been intimidated by his abilities, but he was so down to earth and encouraging that I kept working hard and realized that I could make a significant contribution to the field. Not every recording will be great, but it may still have very important information associated with it. Strive to make the best recording, record the same species as many times as possible and you will start to be able to tell a story. Ted’s extensive and very impressive collection of recordings is housed at the Lab of Ornithology.
It is always great to bring back recordings that are not in the collection and sometimes are the only recordings in the world! That certainly is something to celebrate and makes you want to get back in the field as soon as you can. I also learned that I could make a major contribution by recording all species including common birds. This has helped round out the Library with geographic information, and variation has added different types of vocalizations, rounding out the repertoire of individual species.
Turning Points: A trip to Kenya in 1987 on a Lab of Ornithology safari was a distinct turning point in my life. It was supposed to be a vacation. With Don Turner, the best ornithologist in East Africa as our tour guide, my eyes were opened to the idea that I could go look at birds outside of the U.S.
Greg Budney was carrying his tape recorder and making recordings of the birds we were seeing. This was an introduction to a new world for me.
The next year I went to Peru with Ted Parker. I already had a tape recorder, but I was not using it very productively. Ted really encouraged me to start doing expeditions. When I would see him at the Lab he kept encouraging and mentoring me.
Future Goals: I would like to continue to record birds, document their behavior, and continue to build the Library.
In March I am going to Sri Lanka, hoping to add a lot of new material to the Library. The birds have been separated from the Indian subcontinent for a very long time and evolution will have changed a number of species. There are a number of birds on the island that have already been identified as new to science, generally having been split from species in southern India. Since I have worked in Southern India, it will be interesting to record these species and compare them to their close allies, as I was able to do in Borneo with similar species found on the Malay Peninsula. Sound recordings are often the first clue to speciation.
In addition, there is a list of countries that I would like to work in. Generally, those are countries where the Lab collection is under represented. New Zealand is another place that is of particular interest. Again the birds in New Zealand have been isolated for a very long time, making them very unique. #