"As You Like It" -- Shakespeare
Ah, spring time. Birds singing, flowers blooming, bees buzzing - it's great to be alive. Hold on ... what's that commotion in the woods? Sufferin' succotash, it's an alien! Run for your life, Muriel! Run!
OK, it's unlikely Ralph Moldenhauer's going to be mistaken for an alien, but the Sam Houston State University professor does look a tad peculiar at times toting his dish antenna and tape recorder through the Piney Woods of East Texas.
Ticks, chiggers, snakes - they all come along with the job of maintaining and adding to the Texas Bird Sound Library Moldenhauer created some 16 years ago.
Moldenhauer's office resembles your typical academician's digs save for oodles of bird-related stuff and the odd human skull. All-in-all, an unpretentious setting for the most impressive bird sound archive in the Lone Star state.
The library just sort of ... happened. One of Moldenhauer's students spent many an hour collecting bird sounds in the late 1970s for a graduate thesis. With the thesis completed, Moldenhauer needed a repository to safely store the student's recordings. Finding nothing of the sort in Texas he started his own and the library was born.
The library adjoins Moldenhauer's office and is modest in appearance, consisting of a closet-sized room with a shelf for recordings and a cabinet for sound-analyzing gear. The temperature stays a constant 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is limited to 50 percent.
A surprising amount of knowledge is gleaned from bird sounds, said Moldenhauer. Researchers can use a computer program to study any of 2,000 individual birds on tape in the library, with high notes appearing red, low notes blue. Each bird has a unique sound which is how Moldenhauer spotted a previously recorded subject that returned to East Texas after wintering in the tropics.
While Moldenhauer occasionally detects the return of individuals, he notes that many Texas bird species, particularly tropical migrants, aren't returning in numbers approaching seasons past.
One reason for the decline is found in a collection of stuffed birds lying in a room adjacent to the library. These beautiful creatures - many boasting vivid blues, reds and yellows - died primarily from striking windows or vehicles. Unfortunate accidents one could say, except for a bald eagle in the collection shot by a poacher.
Moldenhauer doesn't need computers to place most of Texas' 650 or so birds - he has well-trained ears. However, a signal-analyzing program is needed to distinguish some closely-related species. Phillip Hughes, a staff associate of Moldenhauer's is accomplished at using the program for such purposes.
"You can use it for everything from evolution to ecology and even identifying individual birds," Hughes said.
The signal program lets ornithologists see changes of pitch and other elements in bird songs, like the length of notes.
"This lets you look into variations and manipulate it to see which part is most important to the bird," Moldenhauer explained. "Some birds have dialects, like humans."
As for the actual process of recording bird sounds, a high-quality tape recorder combined with either a directional or parabolic microphone is used. A 20-power spotting scope is also available to pinpoint subjects. Observers record the date, time, location and behavior of recorded birds, as well as weather conditions. But technology alone does not a good recording make, so Moldenhauer plays a sneaky trick to capture his prey on tape.
"You can record a bird fairly far away then play it back to entice him into coming closer," the cunning scientist said, adding that female avians are immune to the ploy.
In fact, Moldenhauer says, female birds rarely sing at all though they have call sounds for alerting mates and suitors to their presence. Males sing primarily from spring to June or July as a means of staking out turf and wooing the ladies.
The recording of bird sounds is sometimes done in conjunction with the netting and banding of birds. An ultra-fine Japanese "mist" net is the preferred tool for catching feathered songsters, which are identified, banded and set free.
Sadly, the Texas Bird Sound Library is in danger of extinction like some of the species it preserves on tape. Moldenhauer plans on retiring in a year or two, but no one has shown the desire and credentials needed to run the library.
The library could find a home at one of many interested schools, including Texas A&M University, Ohio State University, Florida State University and Cornell University. The latter school has the biggest collection of North American bird sounds, some recorded by Moldenhauer and his students in Alaska and Mexico, as well as Texas.
April 1, 1996