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How do Birds Know What to Sing?

Where do birds get their song from. Research has shown that it is a mixture of innate, pre-programmed knowledge of what their species song is and learning from older singing males. Birds of various species such as Chaffinches and the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) will develop a song even if raised in complete isolation but the song will be deformed in comparison with normal wild song for that species. Scientists believe that birds are born with some innate capacity to develop a song, this is called the 'Auditory Template Theory'. This template is modified and perfected as a result of practice and listening to older birds singing.

Some species of birds show definite learning skill; they sing a song that is a bit of mess at the beginning of their first season, but after a couple of weeks of practice become much better at singing the species' anthem. This early song is first called a 'plastic song'. Plastic song evolves into 'pre-adult' song which in tern becomes full adult song. There is much variation between species though. Some species have such a strong innate template that they cannot learn anything else, others learn whatever is available and can be taught the song of other species. In the wild though these birds learn from their own species. Finally, some birds learn, even in the wild, from other species. Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for instance will copy the whistles of various shore birds as well as the sound of other songbirds, even mechanical sounds, and incorporate them into their song. The greatest song mimics though are the Marsh Warblers. Scientists have recorded and distinguished the calls of over 200 other bird species being used by Marsh Warblers, though not all by the same bird.

A further interesting fact concerning bird song and learning is that because birds learn from each other they tend to develop regional dialects just like people. This is much more evident of non-migratory species. Bird watchers around San Francisco Bay area can place a White-crowned Sparrow to within a couple of miles of its home range on hearing its song. These dialects are maintained because females tend to prefer males which sing the local dialect and because though birds from the centre of a particular dialectal range disperse outwards in a circular radiation, those near the edge tend to disperse in towards the centre of the range.

So, male birds put a lot of effort into learning, perfecting and singing their song. They do this for two reasons, firstly to keep other males out of their territory and secondly to attract one or more mates. There is a lot of variation within this simple scenario between species. The limits of this variation are defined by the physical properties governing sound transmission, the environment the bird lives in and the degree that song form is linked to reproductive success as a secondary sexual characteristic.

Information on this page was contributed by EarthLife.

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Last updated: 24 November 2002