The man who talked to birds
By Valerie Kauffman, historic-site interpreter, Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs
When I was a young child in the —–ties, television commercials promoting the urgency of taking care of our environment were popular. My favorite commercials and campaigns were those featuring Woodsy the Owl and his catch phrase “Give a Hoot! Don’t Pollute!” Woodsy originated in 1970 as an icon for a campaign of the U.S. Forest Service to raise awareness of the need to clean up and protect our natural resources. But—hold onto your tail feathers—before Woodsy, there was once a man who could perfectly emulate the songs of many birds, and who literally took that gift and his conservation message on the road.
In 1868, vaudeville star and recording artist Charles Kellogg was born in California’s Sierra Nevada, the home of the ancient sequoias (giant redwoods). He dearly loved the wilderness, especially his residence in California which he called “Ever Ever Land.” Due to deforestation and logging in the 1800s and early 1900s, the enormous yellow pines which were 30 to 40 feet in circumference and 200 feet tall were nearly gone. The giant redwoods were on their way out of existence too. In order to save the trees, Kellogg believed that he needed to bring the forest to the public.
During World War I, he built a large motor home out of a 22 feet by 11 feet, 36-ton solid piece of redwood log, worth $2,000, that was given to him by the manager of the Pacific Lumber Company. Through his own know-how and with the help of an experienced lumberman, Kellogg hollowed out the log. He used several great log jacks and men to lift the log onto a military-grade Nash Quad chassis. He fashioned the interior and coated the entire log, inside and out, with large quantities of wax.
His first destination with the “Travel Log,” as he called it, was San Francisco to display it at an exhibition in 1918. He drove four trips from coast to coast in four years, teaching, entertaining and creating awareness of the plight of the giant redwoods. Thanks to his efforts, the Humboldt State Park was established which included Bull Creek Flats, the largest old-growth alluvial flat of all. It is the home to what has been called the world’s tallest forest.
Kellogg was an Olympian amidst conservationist titans of his day. One of those titans, Theodore Roosevelt, has been called the “conservationist president.” During his time in office (1901–1909), Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and approximately 230 million acres of public lands. His accomplishments as president include the creation of the U.S. Forest Service; the establishment of 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves and five national parks; and—through the passage of the 1906 American Antiquities Act which protects archeological sites on public lands—the creation of 18 national monuments.
Conservation writers John Muir and John Burroughs were outspoken environmentalists who wrote with the purpose of educating their readers to be mindful of the wilderness and the precious gift that it was. Both men were friends and associates of President Roosevelt and Charles Kellogg. Muir, “Father of the National Parks,” was a 19th century Scottish-American naturalist, poet, author and wanderer who traveled widely throughout the West, particularly in the Sierra Nevada. He wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” John Burroughs was an American naturalist and nature essayist who was active in the U.S. conservation movement. He wrote, “The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are.”
Kellogg was not a politician or a professional writer, but he was a man of many gifts with the heart of a poet. He was born with an unusual larynx with a range of more than 12 octaves that allowed him to sing like a bird. He actually emulated birds by singing their songs from the throat as they did. By the time Kellogg was 22, his amazing ability to imitate birds had gained him national attention. Physicist Richard Zeckwer used a Helmholtz tuning fork to test Kellogg’s avian voice. Zeckwer said that Kellogg’s bird voice had a vibration of 14,000 hertz and reached levels of 40,000 hertz—so high that it was inaudible to human ears. Normal human voices vibrate at 4,000 hertz. In his autobiography, Kellogg wrote, “It was perfectly natural for me to call the birds and creatures to me in their own tones.”
In 1911, the Victor Talking Machine Company signed Kellogg to his first recording contract. He recorded with Victor Records until 1926 singing bird song in several classical and semi-classical pieces. Some of his classical records included “Narcissus,” “Pas des Amphores,” “Liebesfreud,” “Humoresque,” “Amoureuse Valse” and “Serenade.” He also made recordings for demonstration and instruction including “How Birds Sing,” “The Bird Chorus,” “Sounds of the Forest” parts one and two, and “Songs of our Native Birds” parts one and two. Several of his 78-rpm recordings are part of the collections of the Johnson Victrola Museum which is administered by the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.
The locals called Kellogg the “bird man” but he was billed as “The Nature Singer” on stage. With his wife Sarah, whom he playfully called “Sa’di,” he traveled from city to city and amazed crowds who thronged to hear him warble out his bird songs. He sang for 20 years on the lecture circuit and 15 years in performances including his recording career.
After the dawn of radio, Kellogg made many broadcasts experimenting with sound and its effects on fire and animals including insects. He received letters from listeners claiming that the very insects he was imitating would crawl toward their radios. Others declared that the flames by their radios would either dance or go out. His ability to affect flames with his voice in person and over the radio was corroborated by several physics laboratories including the National Bureau of Standards in Washington D.C. and the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York.
Woodsy the Owl continues to “hoot!” about the environment today. His 21st-century motto is “Lend a Hand—Care for the Land!” If he were with us, Charles Kellogg would “tweet” with Woodsy, in perfect pitch, urging Americans to persist in caring for our natural resources and in preventing our heritage from becoming a thing of the past.