For the first time wild sparrows learn songs played by a loudspeaker

For the first time wild sparrows learn songs played by a loudspeaker
Dan Mennill

Scientists for the first time achieved that birds learned a song from a speaker in their natural habitat and not in the laboratory: during the experiment, 30 sparrows not only learned melodies but also passed them on to the next generation. Current Biology magazine publishes a study about it.

In eight groups of animals: songbirds, hummingbirds, parrots, bats, cetaceans, pinnipeds, elephants and humans, young people learn to emit sounds that are used to communicate by listening to their adult relatives. In birds, this has been confirmed repeatedly in laboratory experiments.

First time in the wild

Dan Mennill of the University of Windsor and his colleagues say that for the first time they have managed to teach wild birds an artificially created melody. The scientists worked with an isolated population of savanna sparrows Passerculus sandwichensis on the Canadian island of Kent. After migrating, these sparrows return to their place of birth to breed, which allowed scientists to observe the same birds for several seasons.

The researchers placed on the island 40 speakers that reproduced an atypical melody for the population. Since Kent birds have been studied quite well in the last 30 years, scientists were able to select sounds that are reliably distinguished from common songs. For six years, from 2013 to 2018, they trained five groups of birds, observing them from birth to adulthood.

“I was quite surprised that we could teach wild birds to sing with the help of loudspeakers. The sparrows on the island had many opportunities to learn from other birds, but 30 individuals learned songs from the speakers, which gives us an experimental confirmation of how voice training is carried out, “said Mennill, quoted by the service as saying. press of the magazine.

Passed to the next generation

In addition, by changing the distinctive features of the melodies, scientists were able to demonstrate that four sparrows learned the artificially created song not from the speakers, but from the first generation of trained birds.

The article points out that the authors could not find any evidence that birds with artificial songs had less success in reproduction and survival, so they consider their experiment ethically acceptable. In addition, the investigation in two neighboring islands showed that the artificial songs did not propagate outside the island of Kent.

The authors of the article believe that they managed to obtain “unequivocal arguments in favor of the hypothesis of voice training: wild birds learn to sing based on the sounds they hear in the first year of life. 

Also, the New Caledonian crows were able to create the tools they had seen before, by heart, according to an article published in Nature. This ability can allow them to modify both their own tools and those they see in other crows, thus transmitting their skills to other animals.

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