The Scarlet Tanager—The Second Installation in a Series on Automata

Meet Radcliffe: he has real feet, wings, beak, body - the makings of a living bird, but without the squishy inner bits. They were traded over a hundred years ago for clockwork.

The Scarlet Tanager is an American songbird, which belongs to the cardinal family and is largely known for its vermilion red plumage and carbon black tail and wings. Attempting to identify the old relative at my desk in the Speelklok Museum workshop proved quite challenging. Radcliffe, as I named him, was faded, dusty, and the light in his once bright eyes had dimmed with age. He no longer resembled his vibrant cousins. After sending a chapter of the Audubon Society some images, I was thrilled to learn his true identity and imagined him singing in the lush canopies of South America. What a strange thing, to outlive and out sing all others of his species, for as a mechanized bird he will go on singing for decades to come.

Repairing Radcliffe was no easy feat. Among the various faults in the mechanism, a section of the clockwork for commencing and ceasing the performance was missing and the bellows for voicing Radcliffe needed recovering.

I ordered Zephyr, a fine parchment-like sheet of pressed goat intestine used for pneumatics, to recover the bellows. Usually a pattern is made from the material originally covering the bellows, but if this is missing one can make a pattern by hand through measuring the separate bellows chambers. PVA is a decent adhesive to use for applying the material, but it has the tendency to creep over time and will eventually allow air leaks. 'Titebond' may be a more suitable adhesive, as it possesses rubber-like properties without the off-gassing you get with rubber products, such as 'Evo-stik', which is known to cause metal corrosion.

The paper valves, allowing and restricting the internal air flow between the bellows chambers, also needed replacing. The most common issue with bellows is the valve system. Traditional paper valves are faulty and deform with moisture, making their lifespan quite brief. I found using a brass and plasticine system is the most effective and fool-proof method.

Once the bellows were recovered and the valves replaced, there were a few other issues to sort out. The valve for the brass slide whistle was leaking and needed to be polished flat, and made airtight. After this was resolved, the bellows were so efficient they no longer needed frequent pumping to fill. The rate of the bellow pump lever was too fast and a method had to be devised for slowing it down, or transferring some of the energy. A set of small links were made and tested until the correct size and shape was found.

Radcliffe at one time possessed the element of surprise. Many singing birds were made so that when the performance ended, it would restart for short intervals almost at random, strengthening the illusion of a living bird. This part of his mechanism was missing and had to be made again.

The bellows serve as part of the magic. The reservoir will begin to empty once full, due to a spring that keeps tension on the chamber. As it collapses, it releases a lever that sets the mechanism back into motion, making the bird sing again.

There was one other matter to sort out before Radcliffe was ready for his performance. He had lost his tail feathers over the years, so I made him a sort of toupée…

Using similar feathers and brass paper clips, I made a little 'clip on' tail that can be easily applied or removed without damaging his fragile body.

There was a time when Radcliffe sang just for me; now he is singing for all of you: