For the Birds Radio Program: Ringtones

Original Air Date: Oct. 3, 2013 Rerun Dates: Sept. 23, 2016; Sept. 30, 2015

Bird songs can make wonderful ringtones.

Duration: 4′52″


Annoying ringtones are one of the irritating elements of modern life that I do my best to avoid. Since I so dislike my train of thought being disrupted by other people’s ringtones, I feel a heavy obligation to ensure that my own ringtones aren’t too annoying. I’ve had a cell phone for several years, but before getting an iPhone this year, I didn’t have a clue how to text or how to do anything about my ringtone except set it to vibrate only.

I’m not very much of a technology wonk, but the iPhone seemed so full of possibilities that I decided there had to be a way to make pleasing bird songs into ringtones. My dream was to have a Winter Wren song as my default—it’s lovely and quiet yet I can’t help but notice it. Apple provides several free default ringtones, not including any songbirds, and they make a profit by selling others, so they naturally make it tricky for anyone but a true geek to make custom ringtones. I found some instructions for making my own ringtones on the Internet, and struggled through them step by step, and this spring finally managed to get my iPhone to accept five of them. When my daughter called or texted, I knew it was Katie because her assigned ringtone was a Black-capped Chickadee singing. Russ wanted our state bird, the loon, as his tone. When anyone other than they texted me, I heard a Pileated Woodpecker drumming. And when anyone other than they called, my iPhone emitted a lovely Winter Wren song. I also set my iPhone’s alarm clock to use the Winter Wren song after discovering that it’s the perfect way to wake up—far quieter and more pleasing than any buzz or tone or electronic music I’ve heard on a real alarm clock, yet 100 percent effective at waking me from the soundest sleep.

According to Apple commercials, Apple products are designed to foster creativity, so it seems mystifying at best why they made it so hard for me to set up my custom ringtones in the first place, and why no matter what I did, I could not make my iTunes accept any more than 5. I’d wanted to use special bird songs for my sons’ ringtones, and different species for a few friends’ and relatives’ tones, too. But Apple limits me to just five. And last week, with their new operating system update, all 5 of them disappeared into the ether. Suddenly I have a generic, decidedly unnatural-sounding default ringtone again. I’m traveling right now, but hope when I get home I’ll be able to get them back. It’s annoying that a new operating system would mess up my hard-earned custom settings at all.

Birding nowadays puts me in a weird netherworld between the high-tech and zero-tech worlds. When I’m birding, I can use an app called BirdLog to report exactly where I am and exactly what birds I’m seeing so that ornithologists and birders can use the information in real time. I can use another app called BirdsEye to find out what birds are being seen by state or specific location, or can ask the app to show me where any given species is being seen locally or nationwide. The National Geographic and Sibley field guides are both offered as complete apps, which means my luggage is 5 pounds lighter. I like the idea of my controlling my technology, rather than my technology controlling me. So I like being able to tell my phone what ringtones to use, not of a corporation erasing my work and making me spend more of my time getting what wasn’t broken fixed again. For now I’ve got my phone set to vibrate once again, or have been turning it off altogether. Spending time with birds is much more fun than dealing with technology, no matter how you look at it.