Bird poop

birds 2

Scientific method dictates we follow up on Dave Allen’s bird experiment at Arcadia University. As you may recall (see Libby’s post of 8/29/03 and my a-list piece of Sept. 3.) three starling fledglings were installed in a cozy aviary in the gallery and were treated to daily music appreciation lessons in an attempt to see whether they could pick up some new material. (Starlings are copycat birds who mimic ambient sounds in the environment.)

Dick Torchia, Arcadia curator, had just finished giving a gallery talk when we spoke last week, more than a month into the project. “[The birds] were unusually vocal,” he said. “I had to stop talking a couple times.” OK, so the birds are yakking away. That’s more than at the beginning of their stay. (image, top is the starlings at Arcadia)


Torchia then sent an email with two anecdotes about bird babble. (Whether or not they are sufficient evidence to say learning occured is anyone’s speculation. But really, since this is art, that’s all beside the point anyway.) audubon3

Anecdote 1. “…Aaron Igler and I did some professional audio/videotaping. As we set up the mic and mini-disc recorder, one [bird] perched separately on a branch and concertized for a full two minutes…”

Anecdote 2. One visitor wrote in the gallery book on Sept. 23: “We heard little for the first half hour but at about 2:45 there was some intense singing — one bird at a time — for about ten minutes, definitely incorporating motifs from a few measures back.”


Diva-like performances. That’s got to mean something doesn’t it?

Torchia concludes, “I’m not sure there is any objective way to measure how the Messiaen recording has affected the starlings, but I know for sure that there is a discernable “Pavlovian” response. each morning when the music is turned on they definitely perk up and start to sing. They are also very responsive to the sound of people talking in the gallery, but perhaps because they are more social than musical.”audubon4

The curator/artist known for his camera obscura work and photo projections has some previous experience working with animals in art. “I worked with fish on my own….and it’s hard. I projected [an image] on the fish.” Not only is it hard, but afterwards you might be left holding the fish, like Torchia was. He told me he wound up keeping one of the fish for seven years.


Well, nothing conclusive in the bird learning experiment. And the three starlings are now gone to the bird sanctuary from whence they’ll be transferred to the wild when they’re ready. As for me, I went, saw, listened and enjoyed being “that” close to the wild things. It may not have succeeded as science but the piece was an audio-visual aesthetic experience I’ll remember. (images middle and bottom are John J. Audubon paintings)