Do Birds Prefer Music? NCCS Student Experiment Wins National Challenge

The scientific experiment of Jane Walsh, a Country School 7th grade student, has been selected as the National Challenge Grand Prize Winner of Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s K-12 annual magazine, Birdsleuth Investigator.

Jane undertook her experiment “Do Birds Prefer Music?” in her backyard over a month-long period in 2018 and submitted it with assistance from sixth grade science teacher Margaret Mackey. The objective of Jane’s study was to determine whether or not birds preferred a feeder with the music of Ludwig van Beethoven No. 9 in D minor or a feeder with no music at all. Her hypothesis was that birds would like silence more than classical music because the music would scare them away. However, this was not the case. She found that, by a small margin, birds prefer to feed at a feeder that has music playing as opposed to a feeder where no music is playing. This was especially true of the Dark-eyed Junco species.
“We were really impressed with the creativity of Jane’s discussion,” said Kelly Schaeffer, director of Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s K-12 program, which publishes experiments from students around the country in its magazine. “Not only did she conduct a fair experiment to test her question, Jane provided thought-provoking discussion about her results and what other factors could have influenced the data collected. We’re excited to share Jane’s investigation with other students and inspire the next batch of feeder investigations.”
For the past several years, NCCS students have designed and conducted experiments on bird feeding behavior over the course of the winter. The experiments are part of a unit focused on both the study of birds’ ecology and adaptation. Generally, students have tested whether birds prefer a certain color or type of the seed (several experiments have been published in BirdSleuth in years past). Jane, however, wanted to do something unique.

“I took a risk investigating the effect of music on feeding habits and it paid off,” said Jane, who can now identify all the birds in her neighborhood.

“Jane has sparked an interest in others,” said her science teacher Margaret Mackey. “Now students want to expand upon her idea and do experiments with different kinds of sounds and music. Good science always begs new questions.”
Early in sixth grade, the class worked on an experiment together about the formation of igneous rocks to familiarize themselves with the scientific method. The bird experiment, which happens later in the year, however, required autonomy.

“The goal of any inquiry-based project is to develop independence, close observation and time management,” says Ms. Mackey. “At every step, the students are real scientists, right until the point of publishing their findings in a scientific journal.”   
Jane is proud of her accomplishment. “It’s amazing that something I did by myself in my backyard is being read by people all over the country.”

Read Jane's experiment.