Pay Phones Are For The Birds

In Takoma Park, Md., an old phone box has been transformed into an art piece that visitors can use to dial up birdsong.


What do you do with a payphone now that payphones are getting phased out? Takoma Park, Md., gave one over to the birds.

DAVID SCHULMAN: OK. So here’s the phone. You pick up the handset. It’s canary yellow. And that’s what you hear.


AUTOMATED VOICE #1: Welcome to Bird Calls, featuring the sounds of birds who make their homes here in Takoma Park.

SIMON: NPR contributor David Schulman is a musician and audio producer in Takoma Park. And when the town asked for ideas in 2016, they chose his.

SCHULMAN: I’ve been familiar with the recordings that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has through the Macaulay Library, all these great recordings of birds. And I’ve always loved payphones. And I – somehow it just seemed like it would be great to have a phone where you could hit a button and you could hear the sounds of the local birds.

SIMON: The payphone Bird Sound Free Jukebox has been a hit, recently featured in The Washington Post. We gave it a whirl. No quarters necessary.


SCHULMAN: If you press – I think it’s this button 9.

AUTOMATED VOICE #1: Night herons.

SCHULMAN: You hear a night heron. And so this is a way that you could connect with that. And maybe somebody would pick up the phone who had no idea about these birds, and they might be walking on the creek a few days later, and they might hear that and think, hey, that’s the night heron.

SIMON: You can also dial up a wood duck, red-tailed hawk, the belted kingfisher, and the wood thrush, but not BJ Leiderman, who does our theme music. David Schulman has expanded his thinking beyond Takoma Park.

SCHULMAN: It would be great to do another Bird Calls box with some of the extraordinary birds in other places, like couas. And some of those will just blow your mind. You know, you hear the sound of that, you’ll think, what planet? And you’re like, this planet.

SIMON: He sees people of all ages using the phone – neighborhood children, adults at the bus stop. You can even dial 411.

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Four, one, one, Bird Calls, migratory assistance. Can I help you?

SIMON: Yes. How’s the weather on my migration route?

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: State your destination, please.

SIMON: The equator.

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Can you repeat that?

SIMON: Yes. The equator.

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Can you repeat that again? And maybe do a pretty little trill on the end?

SIMON: Yes. Equator. (Imitating bird noises).

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: OK. Got it. I wouldn’t worry. Your route doesn’t look bad as the crow flies.

SIMON: What a crow-median (ph).


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