He Made a Phone That Plays Birdsong in 2016. Why is It Just Now Catching Eyes?

February 16, 2024 By Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu Jane Kelly, jak4g@virginia.edu

It went public in 2016, but University of Virginia alumnus David Schulman’s quirky creation really started catching on in January after a Washington Post story brought it – and him – broad attention.

Eight years ago, after winning a local art-in-place grant, Schulman retrofitted an old-school payphone to play the chirps, tweets and calls (get it?) of birds local to Takoma Park, Maryland, the Washington suburb he calls home. 

More recently, the local government replaced some tattered flags to call attention to the phone booth, and suddenly it was getting noticed.

“Like, eight years later, that’s what caught attention,” Schulman said. “The [Post] reporter was like, ‘Wait, I can't believe we haven’t done the story.’”

Soon, coverage followed on NPR, and Schulman began hearing from representatives of parks and zoos all around the country inquiring about the possibility of getting their own customized phones.

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Portrait of David Schulman outside in front of one of his bird phones
David Schulman, who graduated from UVA in 1988, won an art-in-place grant for his bird phone. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

UVA Today wanted in on the scoop, and reached out to him to get his behind-the-scenes story. 

(UVA Today’s digital team has also created an interactive facsimile of Schulman’s bird phone so you can make some avian phone calls, too.)

Playing Telephone

Schulman, a 1988 graduate who grew up in Charlottesville, is a freelance audio producer whose clients include CNN, NBC and the Smithsonian.

His father, the late Arthur Schulman, a former psychology professor at the University, kept a catalog of birds he spotted in their Rugby Road neighborhood. As a tween, David remembers his father taking him on a fall day trip to Afton Mountain to watch raptors coast along the wind currents.

David later enrolled at UVA and used an Echols Scholarship to tailor a major in writing music and the study of perception. The pairing seemed to predestine him for sonic fame.

Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do
Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do

David said his childhood experiences were not on his mind when he decided to create his project, called “BIRDCALLS!,” for his Takoma Park neighborhood, but the similarities are interesting to note. 

“Why did I do this? I think the things I like have to do with audio and storytelling in music,” he said.

Now It’s Your Turn to Call a Bird

With the 12 buttons that make up the dial pad of the phone at his disposal, Schulman began to cultivate his ornithological soundscape.

To get started, users need to press “0,” the welcome button.

Want to hear the virtuoso of imitation? Press “1.” and hear the mockingbird’s song.

A night heron

The night heron is among the birds featured on Schulman’s phone. (Photo by Skip Ploss)

Other local birds help complete the covey.

“There’s a creek just a few blocks down away from where the phone actually is called Sligo Creek, and there was a place night herons would nest in most springs and raise their young,” Schulman recounted. “These are glorious birds, and it always felt like an event to see them.”

Now, you can press “9” to hear their call and learn a bit more about the birds.

“There are two kinds; black-crowned and yellow-crowned,” says a voiceover artist. “Both grow extravagant plumes on their heads. Some nights, herons nest on branches above Sligo Creek. They are most active at night, but if you are lucky, you might see them in the spring, cruising over the creek in broad daylight or wading in the shallows, spearing food to bring back to the nest.”

Because of the phone’s proximity to Washington, Schulman said he felt a duty to include the city’s official bird: the wood thrush.

“I think it’s got two voice boxes,” he said excitedly. “It makes this amazing, watery sound. It sounds like it’s in some reverb tank or something. It’s beautiful.

“Actually, I remember reading that [the naturalist John James] Audubon considered this one of his favorite birds – not for how it looked, but for how it sounds.”

You can press “8” to bask in the wood thrush’s verdant, springtime melody.

Mockingbird

Pileated

Wood Duck

American Crow

Rooster

Red-Tailed Hawk

Belted Kingfisher

Wood Thrush

Night Heron

Credits

Welcome

Cardinal

Bird Calls

Illustration of a Mockingbird
Illustration of a Pileated Woodpecker
Illustration of a Wood Duck
Illustration of a American Crow
Illustration of a Rooster
Illustration of a Red-Tailed Hawk
Illustration of a Belted Kingfisher
Illustration of a Wood Thrush
Illustration of a Night Heron
Illustration of the Star Symbol
Illustration of the Number Zero
Illustration of a Cardinal

Aural Immersion

Schulman said he would not have been able to pull off the project if it weren’t for the generosity of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. “These people have this amazing archive of animal sounds, mostly bird calls,” he said.

It is probably a little-known fact today that some phone users can still dial “411” to get directory assistance, meaning an automated service will provide a user with a person’s phone number or address.

Schulman, the audio producer, “birdified” that function and renamed it “migration assistance.”

Candid of Hatib Joof using the bird phone
The phone stands in front of Hatib Joof’s West African restaurant, Mansa Kunda. He said it is popular with a nearby kindergarten. “They come every day. Whether it rains, snows, they’re here every day,” he said, smiling. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

When a user of his phone dials 411, an operator asks the caller to “state your destination, please,” as a mix of bird sounds, including clucking chickens and mourning doves, plays in the background. We don’t want to give away the punch line, so please dial in.

What Would a UVA-Themed Phone Sound Like?

If UVA commissioned a phone from Schulman, what bird calls would he use and where would he want to put the phone?

“It would be great to get a red-tailed hawk in there because they are around Charlottesville and I’m sure my dad and I saw some that day when we went up to the Howard Johnson’s on the mountaintop,” he said.

Another bird from his father’s catalogue is a unique one called a towhee. 

“It’s a beautifully colored bird with a black head and some white and orange on it,” Schulman said. “It shuffles its feet in the underbrush to uncover bugs. 

“It’s got this really delightful, whistled call which is often translated into English as ‘Drink your tea.’ It’s a very distinctive call and you’ll often hear mockingbirds imitating it,” he said.

How about a UVA-colored bird?

An eastern blue bird wearing an orange UVA hat

Schulman said if he were to design a UVA-themed bird phone, he would include the Eastern blue bird because of its blue and orange feathers. (Photo by Tina LeCour, illustration by John DiJulio, University Communications)

“Well, the Eastern bluebird actually is pretty orange and blue and they are native to this area,” Schulman said.

As to where he would put the phone booth, he thought back to his undergraduate days at UVA in the 1980s and a stand of handsome, wooden phone booths that stood in Newcomb Hall.

“My fantasy would be, ‘Oh, maybe they still have a couple of those they put in some storage shed and I can rehab them and put in some bird sounds,’” he said wistfully.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Senior Associate Office of University Communications