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Identifying the Musical Tastes of Birds

PandoraBird appears as a simple bird feeder, but it functions like a music streaming and recommendation service.

Pandora Bird at Swale, docked at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park (all photos courtesy Elizabeth Demaray unless otherwise noted)
PandoraBird at Swale, docked at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park (all photos courtesy Elizabeth Demaray unless otherwise noted)

Do birds prefer classical music, opera, or heavy metal? As with humans, it’s likely a matter of personal preference, and one art project is offering our feathered friends a chance to communicate their preferences to us.

PandoraBird: Identifying the Types of Music That May Be Favored by Our Avian Co-Inhabitants,” by artist Elizabeth Demaray in collaboration with computer scientist Ahmed Elgammal and Rutgers University’s Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, appears as a simple, blue bird feeder. It functions, however, like its eponymous music streaming and recommendation service: while it plays songs, a camera module connected to a Raspberry Pi computer photographs and identifies specific species, as well as tracks how long each bird stays. If a bird feeds until the end of a tune, the system will select another one with similar qualities such as rhythm and melody. Demaray is attempting to build a database of the songs preferred by our wild, feathered friends and eventually present a music-discovery service for birds.

A house sparrow's recent visit to PandoraBird aboard "Swale" at Brooklyn Bridge Park
A house sparrow’s recent visit to PandoraBird aboard “Swale” at Brooklyn Bridge Park

“This artwork considers the fact that although birds in our immediate environment are constantly bombarded by human noise and many species respond to human song, nobody has ever studied what type of music our avian co-inhabitants might prefer,” Demaray told Hyperallergic. “From this perspective, it is our hope that PandoraBird allows us to better understand, and ultimately communicate with, the other life forms in our shared ecosystem.”

You’ll find PandoraBird currently floating on a large barge docked at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park — this is “Swale,” a floating urban forest by the artist Mary Mattingly that Hyperallergic recently visited. Demaray has rigged the bird feeder to play six songs that represent an array of genres: Andrea Bocelli’s “Ave Maria,” Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” Maurane’s “Prelude de Bach,” and Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

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PandoraBird’s internally mounted Raspberry Pi camera and audio system while installed in Philadelphia (photo by Jennifer Jakimaik)

When I visited on a recent early morning, “Swale” was still closed to the public. Sparrows flew to and hung out on PandoraBird, but the songs emitting from the feeder did not reach my ears on the dock, due to the wind as well as noisy construction nearby. The obstruction drove home Demaray’s message about how much noise pollution we create, and the importance of considering how that impacts the other organisms with whom we share our spaces. Many scientific studies have proven how human sound effects bird behavior in ways we may not realize. Demaray noted how, in the New York area, cat birds and mockingbirds are known to replicate human-made noise. Meanwhile, the lyre bird, native to Australia, has displayed remarkable ability to mimic sounds from chainsaws to car alarms.

At Brooklyn Bridge Park, mourning doves, blacked-capped chickadees, and white-throated sparrows have flocked to the feeder. Demaray has not yet analyzed the information from its current run on “Swale,” but a previous setup in Philadelphia yielded some early trends: More birds flocked to the feeder when Debussy was playing than when there was silence. Also, Metallica seemed to attract house finches more than house sparrows. We’ll have to wait to see how Brooklyn birds feel about metal, but PandoraBird is a fun and unusual example of how we can give back to nonhuman life forms. Birds don’t necessarily need to listen to our music, but they already listen to our noise. The rigged-up feeder is a meaningful, lighthearted gesture that encourages us to think about the myriad, unseen consequences of our built environments.

While the project is still in its infancy, Demaray hopes to eventually put together PandoraBird kits so that we can rig up our own feeders and allow our avian friends make musical choices for themselves. In the meantime, she’ll be updating her blog with newly collected data. Stay tuned to find out if Brooklyn birds are metalheads or opera buffs.

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PandoraBird at “Swale,” docked at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
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PandoraBird while installed in Philadelphia (photo by Jennifer Jakimaik)
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Demaray plugs an internal audio system into PandoraBird’s Raspberry Pi computer, which is mounted on a gramophone horn. (photo by Jennifer Jakimaik)

PandoraBird continues aboard “Swale,” at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park (nearest intersection is Joralemon and Furman streets, Brooklyn Heights), through November 15.

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