I Have No Clue Why the Caged Bird Sings


Cracker v Kevin copy

I have this theory. It’s not rocket science (which, by the way, rocket scientists tell me ain’t exactly brain surgery) and it’s not brain surgery (which brain surgeons tell me ain’t exactly rocket science).

It goes like this: décor in your office is a reflection of your inner science nerd. You see, far more than the living room or the dining room, the office is the window to your soul. In those other rooms you put stuff to impress people – original art, antiques, the carcasses of your fallen foes, whatever. But in your office you put the stuff that you want to look at every day.

Thus, geologists decorate with rocks and minerals, anthropologists with exotic masks, and mathematicians with bizarre pictures of theoretical topology shapes or fractals (please, all of you out there, enough with the fractals already). I even know biologists who have little stuffed viruses and chemists with equation necklaces. It doesn’t matter if you were never a professional scientist, your decorations are dictated by that inner science geek struggling to be free. And if you claim to be a biologist who likes fractals, then guess what? Deep inside, there is a frustrated mathematician trying to get out. Me, I was a behavioral scientist. On my wall is a painting done by a dolphin, my kayak paddle, and Kevin. Kevin is a $10 canary who has become something of a tiny little feathered enigma for me.

Every morning I sit down to work, turn on either a Cyndi Lauper, Jack Johnson, or Pavarotti Pandora station, and start typing. And Kevin sings along –  adding staccato trilling during the long notes, warbling burbles during the wordy bits, and finishing in unison with the song. He doesn’t actually get the tune, but I could swear he is harmonizing. And then there’s his tastes. At first, eager to greet the morning he’ll sing to anything. But by late morning, he’s choosier. Madonna, Bon Jovi, the Eagles? He can’t get enough. John Mayer, Tracy Chapman, or anyone playing an acoustic guitar and he silently waits for the next song. Turns out, he’s a big fan of opera, classic rock, and some country. He hates most new age, acoustic, and alternative rock.



[Listen to Kevin sing and not sing to Axel Rose, the Eurythmics, Suzanne Vega, Billy Joel, and Shakira (he LOVES that woman) here: Kevin (live).]


Thus has begun a puzzle I hope one of your readers can solve. Do canaries have musical tastes? Is there something in the sound of Guns and Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine that reminds him of mating more than Enya’s Sail Away (yes, I listen to Enya sometimes – it’s soothing and non-distracting – let’s move on)? Is he statistically more likely to sing to Kansas than the Fugees?

I have sketched out a number of experiments to answer these questions, but somehow can’t bring myself to actually spend the hours, days and weeks it would take to execute them. I have combed the literature but found a dearth of solid papers vis-à-vis laboratory models of canary musical tastes.  This is a travesty. Why else do we have undergraduate theses if not to answer the question of why a two-ounce bird prefers Jefferson Starship over Eminem?

Back in the spring we adopted a scrawny little street cat (a behavioral enigma on a whole different scale), who immediately took an interest in Kevin-watching. One night, when I forgot to lock the office door, the cat knocked over the cage and began pounding on it to get at the bird until we pulled him off, clawing at the air like a bar brawler trying to get one last shot in.

crazy birdKevin survived, but for the next two days, he was silent. G&R, Marriage of Figaro, Garth Brooks, nothing worked. I was worried the cat had broken something deep within Kevin’s psyche. But on the third day, Pandora tossed up More Than a Feeling, by Boston. As I reached to switch it, I heard a peep come from the cage. Tentatively at first, and then more confidently, he began to sing along. Two minutes in, by the time Brad Delp hit that high C (…and she slipped awaaaaaay!) Kevin was singing along at the top of his tiny lungs.

I’m not going to say that Kevin has good taste in music. Truth be told, he’s all over the map. But he does seem to have taste. So this is a plea to the scientific community, if you have a microphone, frequency analyzing software and a lot of time on your hands, give me a call and I’ll loan you my bird. Who knows, there could be an Ig Nobel in it for you.

Photo Credit: Kevin facing off with the cat – used with permission by Nathaniel Wilder. Close up is mine and the illustration is courtesy of Shutterstock.

Additional Note: If you tried to listen to the audio file and only got one song, I apologize. Try again, it should work now.

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6 thoughts on “I Have No Clue Why the Caged Bird Sings

  1. Could it have something to do with the fact that he is named “Kevin” after the mythical 80’s rock band “K-E-V-I-N?” Perhaps his name predestined him to terrible taste in music. (See the name theories in Freakanomics.)

  2. Each morning, just after 5AM, I hear the dawn chorus begin, with many birds joining in immediately.

    Perhaps Kevin is doing the same thing as best he can…

  3. Hah! Give me a paper towel tube and Ian – I can match my cousin any day! Great recording of Kevin tho! Wish we were there.

  4. It’s worth mentioning that “Ian” is my brother-in-law. Cute. John, I do tend to think that INXS and G&R are Kevin’s version of the dawn chorus.

  5. I live with four parrots who also love opera, country and classic rock but dislike acoustic and new age music. Do you suppose it’s genetic? Two are species found in Africa and two South America.

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