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Birds that live with varying weather sing more versatile songs
Date:8/3/2012

Durham, NC A new study of North American songbirds reveals that birds that live with fluctuating weather are more flexible singers.

Mixing it up helps birds ensure that their songs are heard no matter what the habitat, say researchers at Australian National University and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.

To test the idea, the researchers analyzed song recordings from more than 400 male birds spanning 44 species of North American songbirds a data set that included orioles, blackbirds, warblers, sparrows, cardinals, finches, chickadees and thrushes.

They used computer software to convert each sound recording a medley of whistles, warbles, cheeps, chirps, trills and twitters into a spectrogram, or sound graph. Like a musical score, the complex pattern of lines and streaks in a spectrogram enable scientists to see and visually analyze each snippet of sound.

For each bird in their data set, they measured song characteristics such as length, highest and lowest notes, number of notes, and the spacing between them.

When they combined this data with temperature and precipitation records and other information such as habitat and latitude, they found a surprising pattern males that experience more dramatic seasonal swings between wet and dry sing more variable songs.

"They may sing certain notes really low, or really high, or they may adjust the loudness or tempo," said co-author Clinton Francis of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.

The Pyrrhuloxia or desert cardinal from the American southwest and northern Mexico and Lawrence's goldfinch from California are two examples.

In addition to variation in weather across the seasons, the researchers also looked at geographic variation and found a similar pattern. Namely, species that experience more extreme differences in precipitation from one location to the next across their range sing more complex tunes. House finches and plumb
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Contact: Robin Ann Smith
rsmith@nescent.org
919-668-4544
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)
Source:Eurekalert

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