A Symphony of Birds

Paris is a city of lights, but also a city of sound. The peacefulness of the gardens surrounding the cityscape is no match to the hustle and bustle of everyday city life. Sometimes the sound is welcomed, such as a talented neighbor’s piano playing or an excellent street musician’s violin performance under the Arc de Triomphe. However, sometimes it is less welcomed, such as a taxi honking or an amateur trumpeter interjecting himself on my metro ride. Despite that, I absolutely love the sounds around the city. An overlooked, but equally important aspect to the music of the city, is the music of the animal residents of Paris. Every morning, I walk outside my apartment and generally hear the sound of some animal within five minutes of stepping foot outside my door. Whether it is two pigeons fighting over food by a bakery or two dogs barking as they pass each other, it is clear that animals have specific abilities to communicate unique to each species.

1 Metro performer during daily ride on line 8


One of my favorite sounds to hear in Paris is the tweeting of birds up in the trees while I walk below on the street. During my time here in Paris, I have been exposed to the knowledge of bird songs in my classes and how their songs act as communication to one another. One questioned asked in class was “If some animals can be shown to have language, do they also create art?”. When I first heard this question, I immediately imagined monkeys holding a paintbrush behind a canvas with paint splattered on it and thought how I wasn’t so sure that it could be considered art. Upon further thinking, I thought of how art can be more than drawing, it could be related to dancing or singing. Instantly I started wondering if some birds may actually be singing for aesthetic purposes or just for their own personal entertainment. I knew that songbirds, like canaries or finches, are even known to have neural circuitry that shows that they are selective in what singing they process from other birds in order to rely on their memories for song learning (Phan et al., 2005). I then began to investigate if birds have been shown to exhibit any capacity of artistic expression and found an article by Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017) that demonstrated the auditory skills and musical preferences of grey parrots in captivity.

2 What I initially thought of as animals creating art

According to Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017), grey parrots are quite intelligent and have high audible skills and musical talents. Male parrots are even known to have songs that are specific to only themselves and are able to provide highly trained song learning to their offspring (Berg et al., 2011). The aim of their study was to determine how music and the use of musical instruments would influence the activity of grey parrots and add to their audible enrichment.  A central experiment of the study focused on how the parrots would interact and manipulate a music-producing joystick test device. The parrots’ beaks and legs were able to freely manipulate two joy sticks in two different experimental set ups. The first set up gave one joystick that produced sound and another joystick that remained silent. The preference for the grey parrots to activate the joystick that produced sound over silence demonstrates how parrots are more inclined to have auditory stimulation than to be without it (Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner, 2017). In the second set up, there were two active joysticks, one set to 90 beats per minute and the other set to 120 beats per minute. This setup was used in order to gain a better understanding of musical and auditory preferences of individual grey parrots. The results from the second setup demonstrate that the parrots preferred to play beats at 90 beats per minute over 120 beats per minute. The spontaneous interaction of the parrots with the joystick device demonstrates that they have a potential capacity to exhibit musical expression.

3 Joystick Test Device used by Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017)

The real world application of the Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017) study implies that musical instruments can significantly benefit grey parrots in captivity by giving them a creative outlet for expression. The strength of this experiment was the use of these two different set ups. By being able to compare sound to silence and then strengthen that result (birds prefer auditory stimuli to silence) by specific was measure of beat the grey parrots prefer, it really helps those curious (including me) to agree with their conclusion that grey parrots can not only have vocal singing capabilities, but that they can  consciously process music and have the capability to manipulate a simple form of a musical instrument. While I believe that their experiment, for the most part, was strongly thought through, there is one aspect of their experimental design that I find questionable. Gupfinger and Kaltenbrunner (2017) state that their method to ensure that the birds acknowledged and used the musical joystick was to have a person stay present with the parrots and motivate them to engage with it. This alarms me as a possible confounding variable as they do not go in depth describing what their specific methods were to motivate the birds. The idea to measure grey parrot beat preference and frequency preference proved insightful and begs me to ask the further question of could birds, songbirds and non-songbirds, be shown to have the capability to synthesize the beats that they prefer and make a music all their own?


Works Cited

Berg, K. S., Delgado, S., Cortopassi, K. A., Beissinger, S. R., & Bradbury, J. W. (2011). Vertical transmission of learned signatures in a wild parrot. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences279(1728), 585-591.

Gupfinger, R., & Kaltenbrunner, M. (2017, November). Sonic experiments with grey parrots: A report on testing the auditory skills and musical preferences of grey parrots in captivity. In Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Animal-Computer Interaction (p. 3). ACM.

Phan, M. L., Pytte, C. L., & Vicario, D. S. (2006). Early auditory experience generates long-lasting memories that may subserve vocal learning in songbirds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences103(4), 1088-1093.


Image 1: taken by me

Image 2: taken from: https://www.google.com/search?q=monkeys+painting&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjzk8a914zjAhVJWBoKHVw0BJcQ_AUIECgB&biw=1366&bih=665#imgrc=CjN9G5sHYDmNFM:


Image 3 taken from: Gupfinger, R., & Kaltenbrunner, M. (2017, November).

6 responses to “A Symphony of Birds

  1. Monica Vemulapalli

    Hi Kendall! I really like how you answered the question we talked about in class, whether animals can produce art. In my own opinion, art is subjective, and animal communication, like human language, does have artistic components embedded within. The grey parrot study you looked at was very interesting because it demonstrated that parrots do perform some form of musical, or artistic, expression, or more importantly, that they do it spontaneously. I also looked at studies about animal communication, specifically bats, but diving deep into if the communication consists of art is a fascinating question, and I think your article brings up very valid points!

  2. Jamie Maaskant

    Hi Kendall. I think that this was super interesting and that the researchers had a super clever way to test if the birds liked music. I agree with your point about the researchers encouraging the birds to use the joystick. It kind of reminds me of the Clever Hans effect that we learned about in some of my other classes. I think it would be interesting to test different chords and see if they have a preference for one.

  3. Hi Kendall! I loved your blog! When I first read your question “If some animals can be shown to have language, do they also create art?” I laughed. However, the more I thought about it the harder the question got. Thinking about it now, I would say yes because art is a form of expression and mostly all animals express themselves in different ways. Slightly different than your thought process, the first thing that came to my mind were songbirds. I find it interesting that you bring up parrots. Their ability to play beats and their preference to have constant sound makes sense to me. Parrots are usually always making sounds. My cousins have a parrot as a pet and the parrot is either always singing or saying nonsensical words, but his quiet moments are rare.

  4. Hey Kendall! Great blog post!
    I think it was really awesome how you were able to integrate what you learned from not only our “Arts on the Brain” class, but also NBB 402W as well! It’s so interesting to see how there’s so much scientific backing to how animals communicate, and I really enjoyed learning more about parrots after learning about songbirds in our NBB 402 class. After taking an art class at Emory, we came to define art as anything that the artist deems as intentional art. With that definition, I wonder if the birds are aware that they are creating art with their songs, and if any brain scans are able to conclude their consciousness when it comes to singing. It is particularly interesting to think about the translational aspect of studying birds and their songs because it was difficult for me to initially think of how we can relate songs to communication and, even more broadly, to humans. But learning about how LMAN parallels Broca’s area and the neuroplasticity behind it all really does shed a lot of light on how humans communicate as well. I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog posts this past month, keep up the great work! 🙂

  5. Aliyah Auerbach

    Hey Kendall! I loved this post, especially since it brings together information from both of our classes. I was also somewhat stumped by the question about animals creating art for the sake of art, and I think your post really addressed this question in a thorough manner. I found it fascinating that grey parrots

  6. Aliyah Auerbach

    Hey Kendall! I loved this post, especially since it brings together information from both of our classes. I was also somewhat stumped by the question about animals creating art for the sake of art, and I think your post really addressed this question in a thorough manner. I found it fascinating that grey parrots benefit from being able to manipulate the musical instrument that is their voice, for recreational reasons besides the primal desire to mate. I think this could change the way we generally interpret bird song and allow us to stop attributing our own human-centric views on “art” to other animals.

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