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A “viral” new bird song in Canada causes sparrows to change their mood

A white throat sparrow.

A white throat sparrow.
image:: Scott M. Ramsay

A new bird song spreads like wildfire among Canadian white-throated sparrows. to an extent that scientists have never seen before.

Birds rarely change their chirping little tunes, and when they do, It is usually limited to the local environment, where light song variations basically become regional dialects. New research The book published today in Current Biology describes an exceptional exception to this rule, in which a novel song sung by white-throated sparrows spreads across Canada at unprecedented speed. In addition, the new song seems to replace the existing melody that was created in the 1960s.

birds sing mark their territories and attract potential partners. White-throated sparrows traditionally sing a song in western and central Canada, which is characterized by its three-note ending. The new song, which probably began as a regional dialect somewhere between 1960 and 2000, has a striking two-note ending and is taking the sparrow community by storm. What makes the new ending so viral is a mysteryo the study Authors, led by Ken Otter from the University of Northern British Columbia.

“These songs are learned – otherwise no new variants would arise or spread,” Otter said to Gizmodo. “Where it started could have been a single bird, but it is then learned by others, and they would be teachers for other birds. It would not spread from a single bird. “

The new song, which can now be heard from British Columbia to Central Ontario – a distance of over 3,000 km – spread according to the study between 2000 and 2019. The old melody with its highly musical triplet outro is now in danger of extinction .

The contributions of the citizen scientists were an essential part of the research. Field recordings of white-throated sparrows were uploaded to an online database called eBird so that Otter and his colleagues could follow the spread of the new doublet over time and space.

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“Citizens seeScientists played a key role When the songs they recorded and made available expanded the scope of the study. We could never have traveled this distance if we had only collected songs, ”said Otter. “The song libraries have expanded massively in the past five years, eBird allows people to upload recordings not just observations. “

The results showed that the song probably originated west of the Rocky Mountains, where it has been a huge success for years has spread steadily and quickly to the east. Until 2014, every white-throated sparrow in Alberta sang the new doublet, and considerable bird populations in Ontario also chirped the lucky ones Melody.

Sparrow’s wintering areas seem to be a key factor in explaining how the new tune has spread so quickly over such a large geographic area. Young males arrive in their wintering areas and mingle with sparrows from different parts of the country. Here the impressive young birds record the new melody and bring it back to their mating places, where it is picked up by other sparrows. To say that the new tune is going viral is a fairly accurate assessment.

To test this theory – that western and eastern sparrows share hibernation areas – Otters team attached geolocalizers to wild sparrows. your results showed that this is very much the case. Otter said there was a similar trend in white-throated sparrows in the US, “but most of their breeding area is in Canada’s boreal forest,” he said.

W.Why the new bird song is so convincing remains an unanswered question. It does not seem to give the male birds a territorial advantage over their cohorts, so women may be attracted to songs they are unfamiliar with. But, As Otter emphasized, variants cannot be also unknown.

“It looks like these sparrows prefer to use some novel song variations instead of the ordinary song. However, It seems to be in line with some kind of template, as you occasionally come across men singing variations that are not duplicates or triplets, but these other variations don’t seem to prevail, ”Otter told Gizmodo. “So there have to be some restrictions on what they will accept.”

Indeed, it seems that the sparrows are already fed up with the new song. According to Otter, it’s recently is being replaced in Prince George, British Columbia, by a new variant, in which it is suspected that the doublet has its origin. It’s been in this area for over 20 years, “so birds may no longer consider it new,” which explains “why a new song type is emerging”.

The researchers hope to further examine these bird songs to determine whether female sparrows really respond to new tunes. This process appears to require ongoing musical innovations among these remarkable birds.

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