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The highlights of creating and using a wildlife sound collection: reflections on a seminar by Margaret Cawsey, Curator of Data, Australian Wildlife Collection, CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences on 3 July 2014. 

 

By Joanna Benedict, Learning Programme Developer at the Natural History Museum.

 

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Margaret Cawsey speaking at the Sounds of Australia seminar Alex Drew is shown working on the sound archive.

 

On 3 July 2014 Margaret Cawsey shared her experience in managing the sound collection from the Sound Archive at the Australian Nationals Wildlife Collection (ANWC).

 

Margaret is passionate about organising data and making it accessible for researchers, museum professionals and others interested in finding out about the sounds of Australian birds. She presents a case for why it is important to make the sounds collection accessible and the challenges involved. 

What is a sound archive?

 

 

Some of the digital formatted sounds can be accessed online via the Atlas of Living Australia website.The taxonomical data and geographical data of these bird species are available from the database on the Online Zoological Collections of Australian Museum (OZCAM).

 

Apparently, the ANWC is the only organisation in the Australian museum community to make bird sound files available through the Atlas of Living Australia.

Why collect bird noises?

During the seminar, Margaret played the sounds from the Grey butcherbird and the Pied butcherbird to demonstrate that the sounds from the two similar species are different. This gives researchers the opportunity to use sounds to differentiate the two birds from the same family.

 

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Grey butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) © Ejdzej. Licensed under CC BY 3.0.

 

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Pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) © Michael Schmid. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

Researchers can use the data to analyse the function of bird sounds in:

•          mating

•          giving out warning signs

•          protecting their young

•          communicating with each other

 

One study of the sounds from the Moonwalking birds found that the sounds were from the flapping of their wings. This information alone is valuable to further the understanding of the science of wing motion and the unique physicality of the species.

Challenges and questions

There is a high volume of analogue sound recordings, some of which are slowly degrading. This poses a real challenge for Margaret and her team. Converting analogue data to digital data requires many hours of laborious work.

 

Margaret explains that one physical container of sounds such as a tape or a reel can generate multiples of bird sound files and metadata. Sometimes the metadata for those bird species may also be stored elsewhere on letters and notes. It demands a lot of attention to detail to ensure that the sound files and metadata are named, matched and stored correctly on the Excel spread sheet which feed into the ANWC and the OZCAM database.

 

The seminar discussed some interesting questions:

 

•          How accessible is the collection of sounds in Museums compared to other cultural organisations?

•          How useful are the sound files versus the cost of digitalising the files?

•          What are the intrinsic values of the bird sounds to further the understanding of bird research?

•          Does the quality of the sounds matter or it is just a matter of getting the sounds available to the public?

 

These issues remain to be conclusively dealt with, but the ANWC will continue to work towards the answers as it develops a sustainable approach to the prioritisation of curation of sounds for research.

 

Margaret is determined to make the collection as accessible as possible to benefit the researchers who can reveal the value of the data. Margaret feels that the intrinsic value of bird sounds lie in being occurrence records as well as providing sounds for the analysis of species distributions and studies of speciation. As occurrence records, the quality of the sound is unimportant as long as it is identifiable and adequate to future analysis.

What’s next?

Margaret welcomes more collaborative work to share knowledge, including the strategic use of volunteers to convert the analogue files and assist with identification of species and collection of metadata, and more funding to recruit staff to locate, identify and curate valuable multimedia collection objects.

 

In reality, it will take more than 100 years to digitise the analogue data and curate the metadata due to lack of human resources. It is undeniable that there is real value in making the sound collection accessible; however curating and digitalising sound collection remain low in Museums’ work priority as most museums already struggle to find resources to convert their specimen collection to image files.

Despite this, museums professionals can at least start a conversation to discuss the potential in their sound collection and to develop a plan with a vision where the public get to hear those less heard sounds from nature.

 

Do you have a sound collection?

What is your vision for the collection?

What does your sound collection sounds like?

 

Share your thoughts and let us hear your sounds get in touch with Margaret Cawsey here

 

Read more about the Natural History Museum’s Collection Seminars Series.

 

With thanks to Margaret Cawsey.

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