This pay phone is free, but you can't make a call. It only plays birdsongs.

Hatib Joof sees elementary school students lined up at a pay phone outside of his restaurant in Takoma Park, Md., in suburban Washington, several times a week.

"The phone attracts a lot of attention," Joof said. "And it's fascinating to watch people's expressions when they use it."

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

It's not just kids who are drawn to the phone, which has a canary yellow receiver. Adults stop by all day long for a little boost as well. The phone plays free birdsongs.

It was installed years ago, but it's more popular than ever, said Joof, whose restaurant, Mansa Kunda, specializes in West African cuisine.

"Once I put the phone out there, it just took off," said David Schulman, a Takoma Park violinist, composer and audio producer who created the Bird Calls Phone by hot-wiring an old pay phone in 2016 after the city announced a contest to design an interactive public art project.

Listeners push 1 to hear a yellow-crowned night heron, 7 to hear a pileated woodpecker's call and 9 for the distinct scream of a red-tailed hawk. Instructions about how to use the phone are in three languages: English, Spanish and Amharic - a reflection of Takoma Park's Ethiopian community.

"I wanted as many local people as possible to enjoy the experience," Schulman said.

In all, 10 birds native to the Takoma Park area are featured, including a rooster in honor of Roscoe, a beloved community mascot that once roamed around town in the 1990s in defiance of animal control officers who tried to catch him.

In addition to being fun, listening to birdsong can reduce stress and anxiety, studies show. Even hearing recordings of birds can alleviate negative emotions.

Schulman said he got the idea for the phone after noticing a neglected, nonworking pay phone in town. He wondered if he could turn it into something appealing.

"As a sound person, I've always loved pay phones," he said. "I really like the old technology of just picking up a receiver, pressing one button and having something happen."

Because he has always watched and listened to local birds, Schulman thought bringing their sounds to the abandoned phone was a way to add a bit of nature to the neighborhood.

Takoma Park city officials agreed, and they budgeted $5,000 for Schulman to complete the project.

Now the phone's popularity rivals the 17-foot-long, crocheted octopus that once graced the top of the city's clock tower, said Brendan Smith, arts and humanities coordinator for Takoma Park.

"The Bird Calls Phone is unique public art that meets people where they are instead of in a museum or an art gallery," Smith said.

The city installed banners with a feather motif at the phone booth in 2019.

After he won the contest, Schulman removed the beat-up phone from the booth at Flower and Erie avenues, then paid about $200 for a mint condition pay phone on eBay to get his avian project off the ground.

He reached out to The McCaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., which agreed to send him a few dozen recordings of native birds. Schulman then enlisted the help of software engineer and artist Branden Hall to rewire the phone to play individual bird calls. Hall also wired the phone to give people instructions when they dialed "0" for "migration assistance."

Schulman said he persuaded several of his friends - including the appropriately named Marika Partridge from Takoma Radio - to record short descriptions of each bird to go with the calls.

Another local artist, Howard Connelly, crafted a metal bird sculpture to place on top of the phone stand, and the phone was then ready for users to call up the sounds of wood ducks, kingfishers and mourning doves.

"We also use the sound of a mourning dove as a dial tone," Schulman said. "What else?"

"My own personal favorite is probably the night heron," he added. "It's a great bird that sounds kind of raucous."

Joof said almost everyone who comes across the phone near his restaurant is intrigued, particularly young people.

Most children have never used a pay phone before, and they're excited to try it out, he said. Some call it "cheep entertainment," he said.

"Some people seem frustrated that they can't plug in a quarter and make a regular phone call," Joof said.

Schulman had to replace a damaged receiver once, and decided to install one that is bright yellow.

Schulman said he's happy that people are still stopping by more than seven years later to make free bird calls.

"One thing I like about the Bird Calls Phone is that it's the opposite of a loud broadcast," he said. "Only one person can listen at a time, and each person will take away their own individual experience."

He said he would love to see his idea replicated in other towns to help draw awareness to the local wildlife.

"I like to imagine Bird Calls Phones all over the country, featuring [each city's] local birds," Schulman said. "I'd love for it to become an experience for everyone."

Related Content

This humble fish may help the Supreme Court weaken the ‘administrative state’

How will you be remembered? Here’s how to adopt a ‘legacy’ mind-set.

More than a ‘big meathead,’ Dan Campbell has resurrected the Lions