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Peggy Daniel presents the story of Tanglewood through a treasure trove of stories from the musical luminaries who consider Tanglewood a second home. She is an award-winning producer/director specializing in classical music programming for public television, Sony Classical, CAMI, and the Bravo cable network.
Tanglewood: A Group Memoir
The animal kingdom at Tanglewood also needs management. The pesky mouse has found in the Tanglewood piano a tempting residence. Joseph Vitti stalked the creature as described in a July 18, 1998, article by Jeff Donn sent out by the Associated Press.
Inside the piano, a telltale sprinkling of felt bits betray the unwelcome presence of mice gnawing at the instrument’s guts. “You could inspect a piano and, overnight, you could have a nest in there,” laments the master piano technician [Vitti]. A box of poison stands guard at each corner of the floor…
“It’s kind of unglamorous,” says tuning apprentice Tracy Tucker, who totes a spray bottle to disinfect piano keys when mice urinate on them. The crew’s twice-a-week mice patrolmen and women also wear face masks and rubber gloves. They place mothballs inside pianos and screen off openings on the underside.
But the peskiest of all the animals is the European starling, Sturnus vulgaris. These are the birds that roost in the rafters of the Shed. Here are a few facts about them.
Starlings have diverse and complex vocalizations, and have been known to embed sounds from their surroundings into their own calls, including car alarms and human speech patterns. Far from being considered beautiful, delicious, or beneficial, European starlings in the United States are normally decried as loud, obnoxious, destructive birds.
The campaign to rid the Shed of them began in the 1940s with birdshot. Chemicals were tried in the ’50s, and screening in the ’60s–all to no avail. A new attempt to muzzle the birds was tried in the 1970’s, and Andrew Pincus poked a little fun at the Tanglewood management in a July 1979 Berkshire Eagle article.
Boston Symphony Orchestra members, being musicians, have nothing against birdsong, you understand. But during concerts the squawks and chirps that emanate from the starlings and English sparrows roosting among the Shed’s girders are music to the ears of neither musicians nor audiences.
So James F. Kiley, Tanglewood’s operations manager, has bought and installed three electronic noisemakers in the Shed. Two sit in the acoustical “clouds” above the stage. One is above the television platform in the center.
All three rotate and go clackety-clackety-clackety-click when the orchestra isn’t playing. When the music begins, the machines switch to a high ultrasonic hum.
The sound, Kiley says, is “piercing to the birds and they shy away from it.”
What else is new? The starlings and sparrows still fly in and around and out. But Kiley’s not squawking.
Another tactic was reported on by Christian Howlett in the July 26-August 1 issue of Berkshire Week in 1985. The headline was “Bye Bye Birdie.”
It seemed for awhile that the birds had capitulated [to the electronic devices], but before celebration could begin they returned and took up residence again, oblivious to Kiley’s efforts. With more than $1,000 for the noisemakers down the drain, it appeared that the starlings had won. The status quo continued for several years.
Now, though, Kiley is claiming that he has been “very, very successful in eliminating the birds. They’re nowhere near as much of a problem this year.”
The final solution? Twenty-four inflatable owls from a Lenox hardware store. The owls, which in nature are starling predators, were hung in the Shed at the beginning of nesting season and seem to have scared away the birds. The defense has simply involved moving the owl decoys every five or six days, Kiley said, so the starlings wouldn’t catch on.
I don’t know about you, but the last time I went to a concert in the Shed, the birds were still singing their little hearts out.