Chirps Trigger Cheer? California Mayor to Test Theory

Chirps Trigger Cheer? California Mayor to Test Theory

Michele Berger
Published: 02/08/2011

The kokako (pictured here) has a unqiue birdsong (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to stay mad or sad when the birds are chirping. That’s the concept, anyway, behind one California mayor’s newest idea: to pipe birdsongs through speakers along his town’s main street.

During his State of the City address, Rex Parris, mayor of Lancaster, California, explained his plans. “Pretty soon, you’ll be down there [on Lancaster Boulevard] and those speakers, you’ll be hearing bird sounds. It’ll seem like a lot of birds there. Why? Because scientists tell us that if you use bird sounds, Cortisol level drops, your feeling of security enhances. Exposure to it 15 minutes a day will make you happier people.” His scientific reference point is Julian Treasure, author, consultant, and chair of The Sound Agency.

Sure, many people connect birds singing to springtime and a reprieve from winter. And birders (myself included) typically love hearing bird tunes. But some birdsongs are definitely more appealing than others, says bird expert Kenn Kaufman. “There’s so much variation in birdsong—from beautiful, ethereal songs like those of some thrushes, to the horrible, strangled scraping of the yellow-headed blackbird,” he says. “It would be hard to generalize about birdsongs making us happy or miserable.”

Parris didn’t know which species would end up on Lancaster’s final bird mix, but apparently, he’d do well to pick carefully. To Kaufman, the kokako, what he dubs a rare native songster of New Zealand, sings the most beautiful melody. His least favorite? The great potoo of the American tropics. “[It sounds] as if it’s trying to win a vomiting contest,” Kaufman says. “I’d like to see the reactions if that sound were broadcast on Main Street.”

As a piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer put it, “Nearly every city in North America already has a healthy population of house sparrows emitting a cacophony of mindless chatter, and would hardly require a boost from recordings to reach the desired effect.” The writer suggests songs from the nightingale wren or the three-wattled bellbird.

For his part, Parris—whose town of 145,000 sits an hour north of Los Angeles—stands by his idea: “A lot of people think it’s foolish,” Parris says. “Part of leadership is being able to bear the laughter. Most great innovations were laughed at. This is not nonsense. This is absolutely robust science.” If the songs-on-the-boulevard concept works, the mayor plans to bring it to his town’s schools and prison. Believe it or not, he’s not the only person to use birdsongs for good. According to blogger Roger Lederer, a retired biological sciences professor, therapists in England have used the tunes of feathered flier to calm down anxious children, and a British radio station is playing birdsongs 18 hours a day. Maybe Parris is onto something after all.