Amazing Songbird Communication Skills

June 23, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

Keen birders have long appreciated the intelligence and communication skills of birds. Apart from the fact that birdsong is delightful to listen to, it is also an integral part of bird identification for bird-watchers, as well as a means for birds to communicate with one another. Ongoing avian research is continuously revealing fascinating facts about birds, how they interact with one another and how they adapt to a rapidly changing world. Recent research has revealed that some migratory songbirds choose their nesting area based solely on the songs of other birds that are successfully raising their young.

To test the theory that birds make use of this “eavesdropping” method of communication, researchers have played recordings of successful parents’ birdsong in areas that would not normally be chosen as a nesting site. The result was that the recorded songs prompted birds to nest there, suggesting that they are more influenced by their social network than by the suitability of the habitat. This is a strong indication that songbirds have far more complex communication skills than previously thought.

In a joint research project, scientists and avian ecology experts from Oregon State University, Wellesley College, Trent University and Queens University, monitored 54 research sites focusing on the black-throated blue warbler. Due to their limited life-span, selecting the right habitat to successfully breed is of primary importance to most birds, as they need to get it right first time. If their choice of nesting site doesn’t have sufficient cover and a ready food supply, their chances of breeding successfully are significantly diminished. It was previously thought that vegetation structure was the driving force behind their choice of nesting site, but the results of this new research indicate that younger birds listen to the songs of older, more experienced birds and use this as the criteria for their choice of nesting site in the next breeding season.

At the research site in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, during autumn when successful parents were singing to their young, presumably to show them how to sing, researchers recorded their song and played it in other, totally unsuitable habitats. Other black-throated blue warblers that were flying overhead chose to nest in these habitats the following spring, even though they were obviously unsuitable. It was further discovered that male birds are four times more likely to be influenced by the birdsong in choosing a nesting site and, even though the male’s choice was obviously unsuitable, the female would follow.

Although it has been understood for some time that birds make various sounds for various reasons, such as for sounding an alarm or to attract a mate, but researchers were surprised at just how strongly the birds were influenced by vocal and auditory communication when it came to choosing nesting habitat. The results of the research can prove invaluable in the light of rapidly changing climates and deteriorating environment. If birds respond to vocal cues, they could be persuaded to abandon previously chosen nesting sites should they no longer be suitable, and be guided to nesting sites which will benefit them and their offspring.

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