A Call to Arms and a Love Song

Two new studies hint at surprising complexities in the language of birds

10-01-2005 // Hannah Schardt

COMMUNICATION among birds is one of the best-observed areas of animal behavior, but there is still room for discovery. Two new studies hint at surprising complexities in the language of birds.

Chickadee SOS: New research shows that chickadee calls--the distinctive chick-a-dee-dee-dee sounds that give the birds their name--are packed with sophisticated, subtle information about danger from predators. Large birds of prey, which are not much of a threat to tiny chickadees, elicit fewer "dees" than do smaller, more maneuverable raptors. Lead researcher Chris Templeton of the University of Washington also found other differences when he studied the calls on a sonogram--a sort of "photograph" of the sounds. "If you look at pictures of the calls, there were lots of differences in spacing," says Templeton. The flocks' responses to the calls were also different: Some predators were mobbed by dozens of chickadees, others by only a few.

Stepford mates: Conformity, not originality, is what matters in bird songs when it comes to attracting a mate. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers at the Rockefeller University taught young canaries and zebra finches to imitate computer-generated songs. But once the birds reached sexual maturity, they stopped singing those songs and switched to traditional songs in an effort to attract a mate.

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