When Dr. Karl Berg became part of the world’s most extensive parrot research project as a doctorate student at Cornell University, he faced the challenge of recording 1,000 hours of the bird’s communication at a wild parrot research center in Venezuela.
In a climate that averages a stifling 95 degrees with 99 percent humidity, Berg’s focus was to discover important interactions and behavioral traits among parrots in their normal habitats.
To properly analyze communication habits, he needed to obtain digital recordings from inside the parrots’ nests. Berg turned to Shure SM57 and SM11 microphones.
The science community closely studies parrots, as the bird is one of few species, including humans, that uses unique “contact calls”—vocal naming skills—to communicate. “Our studies have shown that parrots’ talking habits are in some ways aligned with humans,” says Berg. “Contact calls serve as the sound that uniquely distinguishes each bird—it functions much like a human name.”
The strong communication skills demonstrated by parrots urged Berg to document their sounds for a better understanding of the acoustic patterns and how they relate to human-like abilities.
Interested in taking a more in-depth listen to the day-to-day conversations parrots have within nesting environments, Berg selected the SM57 to capture recordings. Although the microphone performed flawlessly and survived Venezuela’s heat and moisture-heavy conditions, he did encounter a unique challenge.
“The physical design of the [SM]57 was mistaken for a black snake, and parrots hesitated to get close to it, wanting to avoid exposure to predator danger,” he states. “Changing up my game plan, I reviewed Shure’s line of lavalier microphones, with the assistance of Michael Pettersen, director of applications engineering at Shure, and added seven wired SM11s to my project’s set-up, using a tie clasp to ensure the discrete mics were placed firmly against the parrots’ nests, which I made out of PVC pipes.”
Pettersen recommended the SM11 based on its history of performing successfully in outdoor applications.
“The SM11 is a miniature dynamic microphone known for withstanding extreme heat and humidity without being damaged, making it a good choice for Dr. Berg’s parrot research,” says Pettersen. “NASA relied on SM11s for every space flight it launched, as the mic picked up shuttle sounds that triggered a vacuum bottle to collect important gas samples.”
The use of this acoustical gas sampling method enabled NASA researchers to save maintenance and inspection hours.
Before using Shure microphones, Berg tried a different manufacturer’s shotgun mic that drew insufficient recordings because it could only be used outside of the PVC nests. “The SM11 recordings are far superior to the ones I made with a shotgun mic. Rainforests are a very noisy place, so it was critical to place the mics inside the nests, directly next to the parrots, to ensure accurate sound recordings.”
Since installing the SM11s, Berg’s team has reached its goal of recording more than 1,000 hours of parrot communication. He also found a new use for the SM57s — recording parrot duets, a technique where he mounts the microphone on two birds’ neighboring nests to capture and synchronize back-and-forth chirping with video feeds.
“I’ve been very pleased with the Shure microphones,” says Berg. “Their rugged nature and ability to withstand high heat and moisture for up to five months in a nest at a time has definitely given our research team a window into these parrots’ lives that we were not getting before.”
Shure’s ability to manufacture products with a consistent level of high quality and durability is due in large part to the rigorous tests that each of its microphone models undergoes to ensure the final design performs consistently for their customers.
The humidity test places microphones in a chamber set at 80 degrees with 95 percent humidity for 10 consecutive days. Hot storage and operational testing also occurs, subjecting microphones to the long term exposure of temperatures ranging from 120 to 140 degrees. If a microphone model does not pass Shure’s destructive tests, it is not released into the marketplace.
Berg continues to study the parrot species with SM11s and SM57s. After receiving his Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University in 2011, he became a post-doctoral researcher at University of California, Berkeley, where he currently resides.