The birds of Dawn Chorus. Image courtesy of The Studio.

Imagine waking up, instead of to the blaring screech of an alarm, to the calming trill of a Scarlet Tanager, or the distant rhythmic tapping of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It’s now possible with the Dawn Chorus app from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Screenshot of Dawn Chorus alarm.
Screenshot of Dawn Chorus alarm.

Dawn Chorus allows smartphone users to create their own alarms using real recordings of 20 birds native to Western Pennsylvania. Alarms can be customized to combine up to five bird sounds, creating an effect similar to walking through the woods on a pleasant day.

The free app launched last week and is now available through the Apple and Google stores.

Dawn Chorus was created by The Studio, a collective of self-described “cultural technologists” who develop projects for the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Formed almost two years ago, the group has worked on the Section of Mystery and the Light Clock at Carnegie Museum of Art, and on an inclusive audio guide for The Andy Warhol Museum.

The Studio technician Jeffrey Inscho says the new app differs from their previous projects because it experiments with the museum “as a utility instead of a place where people come maybe once or twice a year.”

“The idea for Dawn Chorus was how could we activate the collection of the museum into something that would be useful [to the public] every day,” he says.

He believes the app demonstrates what can be achieved when you fuse the city’s growing private technology sector with its established cultural scene.

“I think our work at the museums really sits nicely at that vortex of tech and culture,” he says.

The app also serves to raise awareness about the Carnegie Museum of Natual History’s conservation efforts, primarily through its Powdermill Nature Reserve and BirdSafe Pittsburgh, a partnership between eight local organizations working to research and reduce bird mortality in the city. To realize this goal, The Studio added a binocular icon that allows users to access facts about each bird. They also sourced their audio from Cornell University’s Macaulay Library, one of the most distinguished collections of bird recordings in the world.

Dawn Chorus bird facts. Image courtesy of The Studio.
Dawn Chorus bird facts. Image courtesy of The Studio.

During development, Inscho says The Studio team conducted extensive tests with experts and regular phone users to ensure the app was “intuitive” and “delightful for people.”

But iPhone owners will encounter one issue. Because Apple restricts system access to third-party developers, The Studio was unable to set the app so it plays when the ringer is turned off (it works fine with Android phones).

Despite this setback, Inscho reports that The Studio has received “overwhelmingly positive feedback” on the app since it launched.

Inscho says Dawn Chorus has inspired him and The Studio team to possibly pursue similar projects, including a timer app that uses frog sounds collected by a scientist at the Carnegie Museum of Natual History. They also plan to explore other ways of integrating the Carnegie Museums into smartphone functions, such as texting and cameras.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.