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A Laboratory Full of Bird Songs. Collection of 20,000 bird recordings aids research at Ohio State's bioacoustics lab. CALLS OF THE WILD

By Bob D. GibsonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 1989



COLUMBUS, OHIO

DO birds have accents? Does a Southern rufous-sided towhee have a different song from one in New England? Do loons living out seemingly solitary lives on northern lakes have clearly defined territories and do their calls establish boundaries and form a sense of community among pairs of birds?

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These and other questions are being answered today at the Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics tucked away in a corner of the Biological Sciences Building on the campus of Ohio State University here.

Prof. Andrew Thompson, director of the laboratory, says although bird songs within a species are similar, there often are regional differences, comparable to the dialects and accents of Americans from various regions of the country. Some researchers, although not many, study bird dialects to learn more about how speech and language develop, Dr. Thompson says.

Thompson is studying the coding of information and the functional significance of geographic variations in bird signals. He wants to learn what factors influence the individual accents, and what that means to bird populations.

Current studies include determining song development of hooded warblers in North Carolina, dialects in white-crowned sparrows in California, and how two closely related species of chickadees maintain their separate ``vocalizations.''

Although much of his work, and the work of graduate students and other researchers, naturally takes place in the field, the laboratory provides a valuable resource for the studies.

The bioacoustics laboratory features a recording studio and sophisticated computer equipment that allow Thompson, curator Sandra Gaunt, or graduate assistant Lauren Wentz to compare quantitatively the sounds of animals being studied. Mr. Wentz is studying the social patterns and calls of loons on northern lakes. A computer can show graphically how one bird's song compares with another in pitch, frequency, and volume, for example. This helps researchers who are tracing the migration habits of birds, some of which sing slightly different songs depending on the season.

With such a large resource available, Gaunt says, researchers ``are not constrained'' to studying just the birds or animals in their immediate area, nor do they necessarily have to travel far to obtain data. A Vermont researcher, for example, can study the song of birds in that area during the summer, then compare their winter songs with those already recorded at the Borror Laboratory without following the birds south.

Often, Thompson says, researchers want to test a hypothesis about how environment affects animal sounds. If a researcher wants to determine the differences between pond frogs and river frogs, a selection of frog recordings is available at Borror to help, Thompson says.

Such accents and differences in animal sounds, he says, can serve ``as a model for studying human speech patterns.''

Almost any North American bird could probably be identified at the laboratory, which has more than 22,000 tapes on file. Nearly 20,000 are of North American birds, but the files also contain noises made by insects, reptiles, mammals, and even three fish. It ranks as the second largest such collection in the world, behind Cornell University's recordings.

THE late professor Donald J. Borror began collecting animal sounds shortly after his discharge from the US Navy at the end of World War II. He used one of the first portable magnetic recorders available and initially made the recordings as an outgrowth of his interest in birds, and as a supplement for classes he taught on birds and insects. He was an entomologist by training.

Thompson says few people in Columbus know of the Borror Laboratory. But, he adds, park officials across the country regularly request copies of recordings for educational programs about the animals, insects, and birds common in their area. They use the center to confirm identification of a species, whether it be insect, reptile, bird, or mammal, especially if it is a bird with a different ``dialect.''

Students, other bird watchers, researchers, and miscellaneous groups contributed tapes to the second-largest such collection in the world, and, according to Gaunt, the ``finest collection of North American songbirds.''

Cornell, she said, includes more sounds of animals from other continents, but does not have the focus or depth on North America that the OSU laboratory does.

Before the late 1940s, collecting animal sounds in the wild was a difficult procedure. Borror initially used paper-based, magnetic tape, which has been copied. The original recordings cannot be used because of their condition.

The laboratory operates so unobtrusively that inquiries about it often draw blank responses from university information personnel. That's a fact of life that director Thompson and curator Gaunt hope to change.

They see the museum and laboratory as a valuable educational and research facility, albeit one without the popular appeal of a chemistry laboratory or medical research center.

Movie producers shooting nature programs routinely use recordings from the Borror Laboratory for sound tracks and teachers involved in special science projects use copies from laboratory recordings, Gaunt says.

Thompson says organized amateur bird watching groups ``who know about us'' use the recordings. For bird watchers, a bird's song is often a primary means of identification, he says.

The laboratory has three objectives: to enhance the collection, to make the collection available to the scientific community, and to support a strong educational and research program.