The Call of the Wild Car Alarm
New York Artist Nicks Natural Bird Sounds for Novel Art Project
Listen to Rick Karr's sonic postcard.
Brooklyn artist Nina Katchadourian poses with a car equipped with one of her bird call alarms.
Photo: Rick Karr, NPR News
Bird Call Car Alarm Variations
Variation 1: Superb Lyrebird, Northern Cardinal, Great Potoo, Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Stilt Sandpiper, Common Loon
Variation 2: Smooth-Billed Ani, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Goshawk, Red-Breasted Nuthatch, American Woodcock, Northern Bobwhite
Variation 3: Northern Cardinal, Rough-Legged Hawk, Sora, Dumlin, Wood Rail, Three-Wattled Bellbird
Under the hood: the electronic "guts" of the bird call alarm
Photo: Rick Karr, NPR News
"They’re all real birds. They are all a little bit re-edited so that I could... get this patterning to work. And they are -- like car alarms -- quite loud, quite shrill."
Brooklyn artist Nina Katchadourian, creator of the bird call car alarm
July 11, 2002 -- The familiar urban "song" goes like this: 16 siren wails as an introduction, followed by 16 more, in a different pattern. Then eight descending swoops, then two long upward swoops, then what NPR's Rick Karr calls the "European ambulance" sound, like a shrill grunt. Finally, as a coda, a truly annoying staccato of warning tones.
Summer in the Big Apple is the noisiest time of the year -- open windows, blaring stereos and screaming kids home from school all contribute to the background din. The "song" is the tone sequence of many car alarms, and it adds its own distinct sound to New York City's noise pollution problem.
"I’ve seen cars driving down the street with these things in full blare and nobody -- not even police officers -- seems to take notice," Karr reports. "What kind of theft deterrent is that? These car alarms are pretty much for the birds."
But Brooklyn artist Nina Katchadourian has a novel solution. With help from the Sculpture Center in Queens, she’s taken three cars and fitted them with a new kind of alarm. Instead of those six annoying electronic tones, her alarms blare bird songs that more or less follow the same sonic pattern.
"They’re all real birds," Katchadourian says of her Natural Car Alarms. "They are all a little bit re-edited so that I could... get this patterning to work. And they are -- like car alarms -- quite loud, quite shrill."
She tells Karr she built the hardware for her alarms from car stereos and microprocessor chips. She got the basic bird sounds from the Macauley Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University. Her sonic aviary includes the mating call of the Three-Wattled Bellbird, the everyday song of the Northern Bobwhite, and the rare Ivory-Billed Woodpecker -- which hasn’t really been seen for about 70 years, and may be extinct.
Katchadourian says she got the idea for Natural Car Alarms while she was on an artist’s residency last year on the island of Trinidad. "One day deep in the jungle I heard a bird that I mistook for a car alarm... and I thought, my urban New York mindset is creeping in, even here."
Out in the country, bird sounds are perfectly natural, blending into the background -- much like the sound of a car alarm in an urban environment. "But here in the city, a bobwhite is almost unheard of," Karr reports. "Its sound is especially jarring when it’s blaring from the underside of a late-model Honda sedan.
Nina Katchadourian says the whole point of her Natural Car Alarms is to get people to think about what we mean when we use the word "natural." Her "flock" of natural car alarms will be alighting throughout the summer at art events across New York City. She says she didn’t start out with any intention of actually selling her alarms, but she’s received so many requests that she’s looking into having the alarms mass-produced.
In his Nov. 23, 1999 essay for Morning Edition, commentator William Hamilton shares his thoughts on what to do about annoying car alarms.
Information about Katchadourian's project, including a schedule of where the alarms can be heard, can be found at the Sculpture Center official Web site.
Macauley Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University.