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Tweet Tweet? TWEEEET!! | BenchFly
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Tweet Tweet? TWEEEET!!

The other day I was talking to my parents via Skype when we were rudely interrupted by a very loud bird. It was a starling, and it was hanging out on the chimney, its (very loud) song echoing down into my parents’ living room.

While we commented on the prettiness of the bird’s song, he was probably caught up in something more serious. Birds generally sing to attract a mate or to warn other birds of an intruder, not to entertain human beings. However while birdsong generally only has a positive impact on our day-to-day lives (except for the odd incident of an aggressive dawn chorus exacerbating a nasty hangover), humans have made the lives of urban birds a little tricky.

A recent study published in Animal Behaviour by David Luther and Elizabeth Derryberry looked at how human noise, particularly traffic noise, has affected the song of white-crowned sparrow in San Francisco. Male white-crowned sparrow generally learn one song, which they use throughout their whole life, and the song they learn depends on where they grew up. Much like a New Yorker will struggle to understand someone from the Deep South, a sparrow from the country will have trouble deciphering the warbling of a city sparrow. But what’s the difference?

Sound waves are defined both by their frequency, which determines pitch, and their amplitude, which determines volume. Anthropogenic noise, such as the sound of a car engine, tends to have a low frequency. Bird song is more varied, and utilizes sounds of both low and high frequency. In order to be heard above the surrounding cacophony of cars, a male urban sparrow would be therefore expected to either sing louder, or change his song so that it uses higher frequency sounds.

Luther and Derryberry used an archive of white-crowned sparrow recordings from different areas of San Francisco, spanning over 30 years, to address how these birds have adapted to life in the big city. Using these data, combined with an assessment of how noise in San Francisco has changed over the same time period, they found that the frequency of the sparrow song had indeed increased.

In their second experiment, the scientists took recordings of white-crowned sparrow from the 1970’s and played them back to sparrow in various parts of the city. The sparrow were far less interested in these songs than they were in songs from their contemporaries, suggesting they either couldn’t hear them as well over the ambient city sounds, or that they were less able to recognize them as local dialects.

In a similar study, Derryberry has looked at rural populations of the same birds and found that the frequency of the sparrow song had actually dropped, likely due to the preference of female sparrow for these more sultry tones.

And this is what Luther and Derryberry plan to address next, but when they’re done perhaps they could assess the acoustic advantage of singing atop a chimney by starlings in rural areas of northern England…

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Katie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at www.katiephd.com. Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.

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Be the first one to mind the gap by filling in the type of bird as a comment and get your name in the blog along with a sweet new BenchFly mug!

UPDATE! Congratulations to Jason – this week’s winner of Mind the Gap!

About the winner: Jason is an immunologist focused on HIV research. Follow him on Twitter for his latest thoughts.

About the prize: In addition to fame and glory beyond their wildest dreams, winners receive our new hot-off-the-presses large (15 oz) BenchFly mug to help quench their unending thirst for scientific knowledge… or coffee. Check out where the mug has traveled – will you be the first in your state or country to win one?

Miss a previous edition of Mind the Gap? Shame on you! Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered:

All the Better to See Sperm Whales With, My Dear

Saw VII: The Revenge of the Sawfish

Caution: Objects May Appear Larger Than They Really Are

Facebook Updates: The Good, The Bad, and The Vague

Scared of Dropping the Soap? Worry No More.

New Year’s Lab-olutions

A Social Network for Food: Why Won’t Vanilla Friend Garlic?

I’d Rather Die Fat and Young than Old and Skinny

Look Into My Wide, Vacant, Eyes

I’m Just Mad About Saffron

Sweet Relief: How Sugar May Help Reverse Climate Change

 

 

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7 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Jason

    wrote on April 4, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    The white-crowned sparrow!

  2. alan@benchfly

    wrote on April 4, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Holy cow- we have a winner in one of the fastest replies ever! Congrats!

  3. alan@benchfly

    wrote on April 4, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Hey Jason, looks like the email you provided is bouncing back, please email me at: alan@benchfly.com. Thanks!

  4. Jason

    wrote on April 4, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Oh, also, you spelled the journal name wrong. There's a "u" missing.

    Too much time in the USA, Katie? ;)

  5. alan@benchfly

    wrote on April 4, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Nice catch! We're slowing trying to ween Katie from her British "ou" problem, so it's good to see the indoctrination is working…

  6. @Katie_PhD

    wrote on April 4, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Alan has made me listen to a tape of an american spelling out words while I sleep. Very effective, although there are occasional off-target effects.

  7. Dr. O

    wrote on April 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli, the Nuttall's white-crowned sparrow.

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