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 Ion treatments for cardiac arrhythmia — Non-invasive alternative to catheter-based surgery
20.01.2017 | GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung GmbH

nachricht Seeking structure with metagenome sequences
20.01.2017 | DOE/Joint Genome Institute

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Traffic jam in empty space

New success for Konstanz physicists in studying the quantum vacuum

An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

Im Focus: Designing Architecture with Solar Building Envelopes

Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.

As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Sustainable Water use in Agriculture in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

19.01.2017 | Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Helmholtz International Fellow Award for Sarah Amalia Teichmann

20.01.2017 | Awards Funding

An innovative high-performance material: biofibers made from green lacewing silk

20.01.2017 | Materials Sciences

Ion treatments for cardiac arrhythmia — Non-invasive alternative to catheter-based surgery

20.01.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>