For the Birds Radio Program: Piano Lessons

Original Air Date: Sept. 20, 1989

The birds in the Erickson household seem to be enjoying music in many forms.

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My seven-year-old son Joey started taking piano lessons this summer, and he practices diligently every day, mostly, but somehow I suspect that our practice sessions are different from those of most kids. Mortimer the Starling sits in, normally either on Joey’s or my head, but occasionally dropping down on the keys to try out a tune himself. Meanwhile, Calpurnia the crow watches from the living room, and Woody Woodstock the Blue Jay sits in my hand studying everything. Mortimer likes to sing along in starling talk, which Woody hates—he squawks at him to shut up so he can hear the piano better. Calpurnia is very shy and dignified for a crow, but she cranes her neck to see exactly how music comes out of what to all appearances is an ordinary piece of furniture. Bunter our dog lies next to me, crowding out Joey’s feet until we make her move. Meanwhile, poor Joey somehow keeps his concentration so he can get through the assignment and finally go outside to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

All our birds seem to like, or at least pay attention to, music. Woody’s partial to Beethoven symphonies, which I sometimes play in my office while I’m working. I lug Woody around with me as much of the day as I can, since he can’t move around on his own and gets pretty bored sitting in his bucket. He turns his head every which way and listens closely to music tapes and to the news on the radio. He also likes to watch television. Calpurnia fluffs out her black feathers when the kids play Raffi tapes or the soundtrack of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And the two of them both perk up whenever I play records of one of my all-time personal favorites, Louis Armstrong. Apparently his sweet trumpeting can touch the hearts of birds as well as people. Mortimer, being the most vocal, chatters along no matter what’s on. The word starling means “little star,” and so at bedtime each night we sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to him and he warbles along. So far he hasn’t made any particularly human sounds, but he’s certainly getting an earful. Tommy is drawn to Mortimer’s cage like a gull to a landfill. He’s always singing and talking to Morty—I suspect that if Mortimer does finally learn to speak, he’ll sound just like our three-year-old.

I don’t know what kind of research has been done into how birds appreciate our music. A vast amount of human music has been inspired by birds, but presumably not many avian songs take their inspiration from our music. Mockingbirds and starlings occasionally sing snatches of playground tunes, but they are so tightly woven into a long thread of other imitations, from chain saws to car engines, that we can hardly claim that the birds find the songs aesthetic. In Disney cartoons, many woodland creatures are attracted to lovely princesses singing in the forest, but if whether that happens outisde of movie theaters or away from VCRs is anyone’s guess. If you have a pet bird who likes music, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line in care of this station.