Biologists discover for the first time an animal that communicates with the complexity of human language: song sparrows
The tweets of a little Song Sparrow and its “bird brain” are much more complex and close to human language than previously thought. Male sparrows deliberately mix and mingle their repertoire of songs, perhaps to keep it interesting for their female audiences, a new study reveals.
Research, from the lab of Stephen Nowicki, a Duke University biology professor and fellow at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, and colleagues at the University of Miami, shows that singing males keep track of the order of their songs and the frequency of each one. is sung for up to 30 minutes so they can curate both their current and next playlist.
The Song Sparrow is a common songbird throughout North America, but only males sing. They use their song to defend their territory and their court mates.
When courting, song sparrows sing up to 12 different two-second songs, a repertoire that can take almost 30 minutes to go through, as they repeat the same song several times before moving on to the next track. In addition to varying the number of repetitions, the men also shuffle the order of their tunes whenever they sing their discography. However, a big unknown was whether the men changed the order of their songs and repeated them by accident or on purpose.
To obtain data on whether or not the birds intentionally mix their tunes, Nowicki’s longtime collaborator William Searcy, Maytag Professor of Ornithology in Biology at the University of Miami, loaded the recording material, traveled to the woods of northwest Pennsylvania, set up microphones pointed at the trees, and patiently waited for five hours a day.
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Nowicki says fieldwork like this isn’t for everyone: “I would never use the word boring because it’s relaxing if you like being in the field and it’s a nice day and you have your parabolic microphone and point at a song sparrow for hours. Some people would find that annoying. Me and Bill would definitely find it meditatively relaxing. The only thing that happens is that sometimes your arm gets tired .
After recording the full song suite of more than 30 birds, the team looked at the visual spectrographs of the trills and analyzed how often each song was sung and in what order. The first clue that men are keeping tabs on their tweets to avoid repeats was similar to a Spotify playlist, men usually sing their entire repertoire before repeating a song.
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The researchers also found that the longer a sparrow sang a given song, the longer it took to return to that song, perhaps to build hype and novelty once that song was played again. For example, if a man sang song A 10 times in a row, he would sing some more renditions of his other songs before returning to song A again. Alternatively, if song A was only tweeted three times during a set, then a male song sparrow might recite a shorter rendition of the rest of his repertoire in order to return to the still new and underplayed song A.
Taken together, these results demonstrate that song sparrows possess an extremely rare talent with an equally uncommon name: “long-range addictions.” This means that what a male song sparrow is singing at the moment depends on what he sang 30 minutes ago. That’s 360 times the memory capacity of the previous record holder, the canary, which can only juggle about five seconds of song information in this way.
Although impressive, the implications of this work for humans are less clear. This suggests that word order in human language, which is also affected by long-distance dependencies, may not be as unique as once thought.
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Whether better brewing ability gives men an edge in finding love remains to be seen. Perhaps the females maintain their interest in a mate who mixes them up more and are less likely to sneak around with another male. As with daytime talk shows, paternity tests are a good indicator of monogamy in birds, so counting the number of chicks sired by a female’s nestmate versus another bird in the neighborhood could be a future project for Nowicki’s team.
For now, Newicki points out that it’s just speculation as to whether these sluggish song sparrows are giving Spotify a run for their money to keep a woman’s interest, but highlights our similar approach to the gymnasium.
“You have your playlist for running and the reason you have it is because running is kinda boring. You know those 10 songs are going to keep you motivated, but if you’re going to run for 20 songs, why not mix them up so that next time you don’t hear the same songs in the same order?”
(LISTEN to the American Bird Conservancy’s recording of a Song Sparrow below.)
The findings appear in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Source: Duke University
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