60-Second Science

Birds Need Tune to Stay Current

Savanna sparrows that kept up with the changes in their species's calls over the years had higher rates of reproductive success than the birds who sang the same old song. Amy Kraft reports

Unless you’re at a Chaucer convention, speaking middle English is not going to impress a potential romantic partner in 2013. Similarly, male Savanna sparrows have to make sure their vocalizations are up to date.

Researchers analyzed three decades of recordings of male Savanna sparrows. And birds that changed their tune over the years did better with the ladies. The research is in the journal Animal Behaviour. [Heather Williams et al., Three decades of cultural evolution in Savannah sparrow songs]

While introductory notes of the sparrow’s song stayed the same, the middle and end parts changed over time. In the 1980’s, songs concluded with longer, high-pitched trills. More recent songs contain a series of clicks in the middle and a shorter, low-pitched trill at the end. 

Researchers found that the male sparrows that adopted the newer songs had higher rates of sexual reproduction. Because you don’t want to be seen as behind the times. Indeed, Chaucer might have had his pick of the ladies in the 14th century. But few today can make heads or tails of his tales.

—Amy Kraft

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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