My experiments with birds and music

Has anybody done any work on the reactions of birds to music? It seems so obvious, that people must have tried to see if they do react to music. (I have to look into that.)

In any event, I’ve just started some experiments.

The setup: I have a tiny backyard garden in which I started feeding the local birds a couple of years ago. At first it was mostly sparrows; then a few mourning doves began dropping by. Then there were cardinals, finches, blue jays. Even a Sparrowhawk in mid-snowstorm last February (what a sight that was!) There are a few that I still have not identified.

Soon after I started this, I took to imitating their different calls, and to reading what birds use calls for –territory claims, mating, warning etc etc.
I got pretty good at it –a couple of months ago one of my mourning doves hopped up on the table outside the window to see where those mournful calls were coming from.

But just this week my bird-work entered a completely new phase. I took my Yamaha keyboard (with its 400+ different voices –everything from Yamaha Grand Piano to Jazz Guitar to Violin and Flute and French Horn to Vibes to Oud and Shakuhachi) and sat down just outside the door. I had already put a mix of seeds in the feeders and some birds had gathered to feed.
I started to play (my orientation is to jazz piano with a strong interest in The Song –what makes for a good song. (What an archive we have of Song, and apparently we never forget a song. Or so it seems to me.
I first made some sounds –played a few notes together; invented a few trills; played different voices. I noticed some definite reaction. Some –but not all– morning doves were immediately curious.
In addition to the Yamaha’s voices, it has some recorded sounds, which includes two bird noises. One of these caused the cardinal (a male) some considerable agitation: it flew about at a considerable pace, and soon flew off. (I wondered afterwards if I might not have triggered a territorial challenge, or there might not have been a “young birds being attacked” edge to the sound. I don’t know –I just noted the agitation, and also felt a little sorry for upsetting my friends the cardinals. (They are, by the way, the most musical of my bird-group: all the males put on prolonged bravura performances in early morning and late evening, with quite an involved repertoire, that even seems open to change and/or evolution. I suppose that being territorial, or trying to win a mate are innately competitive behaviors, and that a desultory performance might not win the claw of a female cardinal.)

So far the reaction has been intriguing, ranging (it seems) from utter unawareness to curiosity and timid exploration on the part of the birds.
But last Saturday afternoon, I got something much more. I had been trying out some tunes and mixing and matching them to the different voices. Faster tunes –like Dizzy Gillespie’s “Grooving High”, a 1946 be-bop tune that I’ve been learning– seemed to leave my avian audience cold. But some slower and richer sounding tunes seemed to be registering — “Reflections” is a Thelonius Monk tune that I like a lot; “My Ship” by Kurt Weill is another.
I was into playing the tunes and enjoying them, and when I looked up there was …a larger audience: some in the big feeder; some on the long clothesline that I made from some black cable wire; some on the trellisses; some on the higher branches of the tree; some on top of the studio roof, and in the distance, on a telephone wire across the street. There they all were, tuned in like at a concert in the park.
And in the water-container attached to the big feeder, stood a mourning dove, its head cocked to one side, looking intently at me –bemused, I would say. Standing in an inch of water, and blissfully (if I can say this of a bird) unaware of it.

I hope they come back. I hope they tell their friends.

More later. And I’d love to hear any comments.

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One Response to “My experiments with birds and music”

  1. Beth

    My apartment is home to four birds: two cockatiels (Peggotty and Barkis), a Zebra finch (Ramona) and a canary (Best Friend).

    They live in two very large cages, set side-by-side (the cockatiels in one cage, the finch & canary in another cage). Although the birds keep each other company all day, singing and chattering to one another, I also keep a radio on while I’m at work (having learned that a too-quiet room is stressful for birds because they fear that silence may mean that a predator lurks nearby). When I’m home the cd collection rotates (classical european composer, a variety of classical asian music, some jazz, a few other things). The birds like it ok, but their behavior changed dramatically one day when I put on a Sinatra cd. They immediately started flapping their wings, singing and crowing and dashing around their perches. They love Old Blue Eyes!