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City birds sing their own tune

Dec. 4, 2006
Courtesy Current Biology
and World Science staff

Members of a bird spe­cies that have adapted to city life sing a shorter, higher-pitched and faster song than their for­est kin, a study has found.

The great tit, Parus ma­jor. Click here for a web page with au­di­o files of the bird songs from ci­ties and woods. (Pho­to cour­te­sy Her­man Berk­houdt)


The re­search­ers said they were stu­dying what en­vi­ron­men­tal pres­sures in­flu­ence where song­birds thrive, and the at­tributes of city birds that let them ad­just to noisy ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments.

The stu­dy, by Hans Slab­be­koorn and Ar­die den Boer-Visser of Lei­den Uni­ver­si­ty in The Ne­th­er­lands, ap­pears in the Dec. 5 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Cur­rent Bi­ol­o­gy.

The re­search­ers stud­ied songs of the great tit, Parus ma­jor, a suc­cess­ful ur­ban-dwelling spe­cies, in the cen­ters of ten ma­jor Eu­ro­pe­an cit­ies in­clud­ing Lon­don, Prague, Par­is, and Am­ster­dam. 

The sci­en­tists com­pared these songs to those of great tits in woods near­by. 

Songs used for mate at­trac­tion and ter­ri­to­ry de­fense showed dis­tinct changes, the sci­en­tists ar­gued. The high­er pitch for city birds was con­sist­ent with a need to avoid be­ing drowned out by lower-pitched en­vi­ron­men­tal noise, such as traf­fic sounds, the re­search­ers added.

The au­thors ar­gued that song changes as a re­sult of such “en­vi­ron­men­tal shap­ing” might con­trib­ute to an­i­mals branch­ing off in­to new spe­cies, though it’s far from clear wheth­er these birds are on such a path.


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A bird species that has adapted to city life sings a shorter, higher-pitched and faster song than its closest forest kin, a study has found. The researchers said they were studying what environmental pressures influence where songbirds thrive, and the attributes of city birds that let them adjust to noisy urban environments. The study, by Hans Slabbekoorn and Ardie den Boer-Visser of Leiden University in The Netherlands, appears in the Dec. 5 issue of the research journal Current Biology. The researchers studied songs of the great tit, Parus major, a successful urban-dwelling species, in the center of ten major European cities including London, Prague, Paris, and Amsterdam. The scientists then compared these songs to those of great tits in woods nearby. Songs important for mate attractions and territory defense showed distinct changes, the scientists argued. The higher pitch for city birds was consistent with a need to avoid being drowned out by lower-pitched environmental noise, such as from traffic, the researchers added. The authors argued that song changes within a species as a result of such “environmental shaping” might contribute to animals branching off into new species, though it’s far from clear whether these birds are on such a path.