Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Say It in Song: Researcher Deciphers the Meaning within Bird Communication

23.12.2008
To many people, bird song can herald the coming of spring, reveal what kind of bird is perched nearby or be merely an unwelcome early morning intrusion. But to Sandra Vehrencamp, Cornell professor of neurobiology and behavior, bird song is a code from which to glean avian behavior insight.

Birds use song systems to communicate about mating and reproduction, territorial boundaries, age and even overall health. Vehrencamp, with colleagues in the Bioacoustics Research Program at Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, studies birds from Costa Rica, Colombia and Bonaire to decode which elements convey such essential information.

Vehrencamp records bird songs and then plays them back to birds of the same species to decipher strategies that various species use to attract mates and resolve territorial disputes. The technique allows researchers to study birds' reactions to songs when such elements as overlapping vocalization, finer song structural features and the type of song played back are varied.

"You kind of feel like you're talking to the bird," Vehrencamp said.

She found, for example, that song sparrows in southern California can interpret some forms of playback as "fighting words," because they often resolve conflict by singing the same type of song -- known as song-type matching -- back to one another.

"They get really mad," Vehrencamp said. "They treat playback like it's another bird and will sometimes come right up to the speaker."

Between male birds, if song-type matching fails to resolve a conflict, physical confrontation might ensue. "They both pay costs if they fight," Vehrencamp said. "Birds start to negotiate a boundary dispute with song -- they don't want to fight."

Vehrencamp's work also suggests that males that are most successful are those that share many song types with their territorial neighbors. Song sparrows, for example, can learn songs only within a narrow time period restricted to the first few months after fledging, which means that males must learn neighborhood songs quickly to facilitate successful territorial negotiations.

"Song sparrows are very restricted learners, so the dominant birds that acquire territories within their natal area share more song types with their neighbors and survive better," explained Vehrencamp, who observed that birds with a low degree of song-sharing spend more time fighting with neighbors and are rarely seen the next breeding season.

Vehrencamp also studies the banded wren in Central America. This species has a longer learning period, up to a year or more, so all birds in the neighborhood share a large fraction of their song types. "Males get up early, and sing vigorously with frequent song-type matching in what's called a dawn chorus," Vehrencamp said. "We think they're singing to other males, but the females are listening, too."

Type-matching not only indicates aggressive intentions, but enables the birds to compare each other's singing performance for each type of song. Her study suggests that such detail as the trill elements in a song are used by listeners to indicate the singer's overall fitness. "You really have to be in top-notch shape to produce these elements well," she said, adding that a well-sung song in wrens or a large song repertoire in tropical mockingbirds, another species Vehrencamp studies, can indicate the age of a bird. Older males are generally preferred by females because they have a proven ability to survive.

To study how the wrens pay attention to these finer details, Vehrencamp created a "super male" by manipulating the fine-structure elements in song recordings. Territory owners, she found, were reluctant to approach the speaker and chase off such strong "intruders".

And when she genetically tested offspring to determine paternity, she found that singing was a factor when females sought to breed with males that weren't their mates.

"In general, these wrens are quite faithful, but every once in a while we find evidence of extra-pair mating, and the extra-pair mates always had better song quality," she said. "So we know females pay attention to fine song structure."

Vehrencamp said that placing such avian observations within a larger framework can help predict what effects environmental factors -- including humans -- might have on an animal's behavior or survival.

"If we can understand the ecological factors that enhance reproductive success and can link them to conservation, then we might be able to save a species," she said. She added that by better understanding how ecological factors affect the evolution of social behavior, "you can see where humans fit into the big picture, and that adds a richness and depth of understanding for why we are the sorts of animals that we are."

Blaine Friedlander | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.cornell.edu
http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Dec08/birdsong.nd.html

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Decoding the genome's cryptic language
27.02.2017 | University of California - San Diego

nachricht New risk factors for anxiety disorders
24.02.2017 | Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Safe glide at total engine failure with ELA-inside

On January 15, 2009, Chesley B. Sullenberger was celebrated world-wide: after the two engines had failed due to bird strike, he and his flight crew succeeded after a glide flight with an Airbus A320 in ditching on the Hudson River. All 155 people on board were saved.

On January 15, 2009, Chesley B. Sullenberger was celebrated world-wide: after the two engines had failed due to bird strike, he and his flight crew succeeded...

Im Focus: Breakthrough with a chain of gold atoms

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

Im Focus: DNA repair: a new letter in the cell alphabet

Results reveal how discoveries may be hidden in scientific “blind spots”

Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...

Im Focus: Dresdner scientists print tomorrow’s world

The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.

The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...

Im Focus: Mimicking nature's cellular architectures via 3-D printing

Research offers new level of control over the structure of 3-D printed materials

Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Booth and panel discussion – The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings at the AAAS 2017 Annual Meeting

13.02.2017 | Event News

Complex Loading versus Hidden Reserves

10.02.2017 | Event News

International Conference on Crystal Growth in Freiburg

09.02.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New pop-up strategy inspired by cuts, not folds

27.02.2017 | Materials Sciences

Sandia uses confined nanoparticles to improve hydrogen storage materials performance

27.02.2017 | Interdisciplinary Research

Decoding the genome's cryptic language

27.02.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>