Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Song Sparrows Learning Songs

Most oscine passerines – that is, songbirds other than tyrant flycatchers – have to learn how to communicate with other members of their own species. Call notes, the collection of chips and seets used during flight or foraging, are instinctive. Songs, on the other hand, must be learned. While some of the process is understood, the learning process is still an active area for research.

Tutor choice intrigues Michael Beecher, who leads the research on song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) at the University of Washington. Males grow up to sing between six and 12 distinct songs. Beecher has tested various combinations of young song sparrows and possible mentors....

Young song sparrows move around more than he had expected, Templeton reported at the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society, held in August in Snowbird, Utah. Among the 15 young males he could track, each showed up in the territories of at least 20 adult males, making for exposure to some 200 songs.

For the young, eavesdropping is easy, Beecher says. He and his students used stuffed birds of various ages to mimic feathered bystanders hanging around adult male territories. Another grown-up male, albeit stuffed, elicited protests and attacks. But residents tolerated a (stuffed) teenager without a lot of fuss, sometimes flying off to do something more urgent before the researchers had clocked a full observation session.

Young males thus get a chance to watch territorial battles and check out neighborhoods where they could soon compete for their piece of real estate. The youngsters even seem attracted to the noisy conflicts of territorial grown-ups and fly closer as if eager to catch all the details.

Listening and learning songs from a variety of future neighbors could be good preparation for the rough-and-tumble music of the adult world. Seattle’s song sparrows don’t migrate, and males in the sedentary population have plenty of chances to get to know their rivals.

Males face off in territorial disputes by singing to each other, and Beecher has found that repeating a rival’s song back to him counts as a strong move. Learning a variety of the neighborhood songs could mean that a young male has his sassy comeback ready.
There is plenty more in that article, so read the rest.