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An Alarm Clock of Bird Songs, Culled from a Museum’s Archive

A new app by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History presents an alternative design to cacophonous alarms, allowing you to begin your day with a slew of bird songs instead.

Screenshot of “Dawn Chorus,” an app by Carnegie Museum of Natural History and The Innovation Studio (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

I hate my alarm clock. Not only because it exists to kick me out of bed in the morning but also because of its incessant blaring, which is shrill and monotonous. Alarms should emit noises that startle, but that shouldn’t mean they all have to sound terrible. A new app by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) presents an alternative design to cacophonous wake-up calls, allowing you to begin your day with a slew of bird songs instead. Developed with Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh’s design lab The Studio, Dawn Chorus is one museum app I want to use, and actually enjoy using.

Screenshot of “Dawn Chorus,” an app by Carnegie Museum of Natural History and The Innovation Studio

Available for free on Apple’s App Store as well as on GooglePlay, Dawn Chorus was conceived as a project to explore how a museum may interact with the public in a utilitarian sense. That a museum created an alarm clock is a clever idea: besides being beautifully designed (with illustrations by Carnegie Mellon University BFA student Sam Ticknor), the app is educational, highlighting the natural history museum’s avian conservation efforts through one of the most ubiquitous and necessary devices.

Named for the early morning moment when birds sing most frequently, Dawn Chorus allows you to select a lineup of up to five birds from 20, all native to the northeastern United States. Their calls are sourced from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, which represents the world’s largest archive of animal sounds. Besides hopefully beginning to recognize these calls, you may learn about their owner’s appearance and habits directly in the app, which features individual pages on each featured bird. These information pages are extensions of CMNH’s conservation work with the Powdermill Nature Reserve, where the museum has an environmental research center; and with BirdSafe Pittsburgh, which partners with eight local organizations to protect birdlife in the city.

I’ll admit I was a little wary of how successful bird chirps would be after years of awaking to noises that bring to mind impending doom, but using Dawn Chorus actually hasn’t made me late for work (yet). You’re still able to select snooze to afford yourself extra beauty sleep, in 10-minute increments; being able to customize (dare I say, curate?) which birds you want to hear is also a neat way to structure your personal wakeup routine. A combination that works well for me is to kick off with the melodic chirps of the Magnolia Warbler — peaceful, but still sharp enough to jolt me from sleep — and build up in intensity to the Blue Jay, which squawks, somewhat annoyingly. Still, its natural vocals sure beat the robotic bleeting of my alarm clock.

Dawn Chorus does have room to improve: you have to keep your phone off its mute setting throughout the night, which means that any phone calls or texts received when you’re sleeping may prematurely wake you. The birds are also supposed to build on each other as you keep hitting snooze to form a dense chorus, but only one sings at a time right now. Still, the app makes ever-present the songs that we may hear around us but fail to notice or appreciate; it frames conservation species as a vital part of our lives that we cannot ignore.

Screenshot of “Dawn Chorus,” an app by Carnegie Museum of Natural History and The Innovation Studio
Screenshot of “Dawn Chorus,” an app by Carnegie Museum of Natural History and The Innovation Studio
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