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The Meanings Behind Birdsong

Many of us hear the beautiful song produced by songbirds and we assume it is their way of letting us know that it is indeed morning and they are awake, or the announcement of spring or various other reasons. However, new research has shown that song is actually an indication of behavior among birds.

Sandra Vehrencamp, Cornell professor of neurobiology and behavior has been studying birds for a long time. She says that not only does their song communicate things such as information about mating and territorial issues, but it can even convey information about their general health.

The way she does her research is interesting. She records birds’ songs and then plays them back to other birds. She then studies their reaction to these songs to decipher the song meaning.

Some interesting findings:

Sparrows seem to get really mad at song and want to “confront” the speaker from which the sound is coming
Male birds in general are the ones that negotiate territory disputes.
Birds that learn the songs of other bird species are more likely to fare better.

The ability to sing and sing well is extremely important to these birds. It can mean the difference between survival and not making it. For example, Vehrencamp found that when she altered the recordings to in fact make what she calls a “super male”, or a male with a perfect singing voice, most other birds would retreat when hearing this, rather than get angry and sing back.

Also, women prefer to mate with males that have great singing voices.

But the impact of studies like these are not just for showing that a bird that sings well will have a pretty wife. There are other factors that are much more important. Vehrencamp believes that studies like this can provide insight as to how birds may be impacted by environmental factors.

She believes there is a direct link to ecological factors and social behavior. By finding out this information early on, we may, in turn, be able to save an entire species before it is too late.

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