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Reflections on being DJ in Residence at the Bronx Zoo

Please wipe your hands before you touch the DJ equipment

Ben Mirin, AKA DJ Ecotone. Credit: Sora DeVore

By Ben Mirin, Safina Center Fellow

For the past month I’ve been as close to “on tour” as I’ve ever been in the States. Every Saturday and Sunday at noon, 1, and 3pm, I’ve taken the main stage at Bronx Zoo’s Asia Plaza to perform a new composition made entirely from migratory bird songs. Whereas most of my work has focused on animating the voices of a particular place all at once, this piece attempts to document a natural process over time.

The piece is called “Green Wave,” after the eruption of new foliage that sweeps up the Atlantic Coast every spring. These new leaves bring out droves of insects, which in turn provide perfect food for migrating birds. In nature the two cycles are linked, but for my audiences in the Bronx the real drama begins as new bird species start to converge on our urban jungle, changing the City’s back track from sparrows, pigeons and starlings to a wondrous chorus of warblers, orioles, and other spring migrants.

As a science performer, sharing my craft with new audiences provides valuable data for exploring how bird music resonates with fresh ears. In order to help listeners tune into nature, each show consists of a musical opening followed by a birdsong identification game, focusing on three specific bird calls that must be identified as they enter the mix. First we review the songs one by one, starting with the Eastern Phoebe, which sounds like it’s saying its own name:

They always get that one. Next is the Gray Catbird (skip to 1:04 for the cat sound):

And finally, the Wood Thrush:

After we’ve drilled these songs I’ll play the music again. As soon as they hear the Phoebe, contestants must raise their hands and keep them up. They put their hands in the air for Gray Catbird, and when the Laughing Gull arrives, they have to perform one of three bird-themed dances: the condor (wings outstretched), the chicken (y’all know what it is!), or the hummingbird (using your hands like wings), like so:

Via @djecotone on Instagram

But really, any form of dance qualifies:

Via @djecotone on Instagram

Thanks to data from eBird–and the relative consistency of annual avian arrivals in New York– I’ve managed to compose a song in which the birds’ musical entrances accurately mirror the order of their migration. During the game, most people hear the Phoebe, and a few hear the Catbird, but only one or two ever hear the Wood Thrush in Phase Three. These lucky few earn a chance to come on stage and remix my remix of nature, blending different phases of the song and shattering the careful scientific orchestration I worked so hard to create. It’s beautiful every time.

For more information on my upcoming concerts at the Bronx Zoo and beyond, visit benmirin.com/events and follow me on Twitter @djecotone. If you want to hear the bird migration song “Green Wave” and can’t make it to a show, follow me on soundcloud.com/benmirin, I’ll be releasing a studio version when the dust settles. Special thanks are due to eBird and the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for providing the necessary sounds and data to create this work.

The Order of Migration in the Bronx: Eastern Phoebe, Gray Catbird, and Wood Thrush

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This graph, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, indicates the time and frequency of bird sightings as reported by eBird users. For more information on this data and the platform, visit ebird.org.

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