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Sparrow sing-alongs may signal hostility more than harmony

Aug. 10, 2011
Courtesy of Queen's University
and World Science staff

Sing­ing the same songs as your neigh­bors may sound har­mo­ni­ous. But among song spar­rows, it’s more akin to fling­ing in­sults back and forth than it is to a team-building ex­er­cise, sci­en­tists have found.

“Song shar­ing”—a ten­den­cy among some spar­rows to sing mostly their species’ “great­est hits” rath­er than a more widely var­ied rep­er­toire —is a rel­a­tively “ag­gres­sive and attention-seeking be­havior,” said Ja­net Lapierre, a vis­it­ing bi­ol­o­gist at Queen's Uni­vers­ity Bi­o­log­i­cal Sta­t­ion near Kings­ton, Ca­na­da. It’s “most of­ten dis­played by bel­lig­er­ent old­er ma­les," added Lapierre, who is from the Uni­vers­ity of West­ern On­tar­i­o and is lead au­thor of a re­port on the new re­search.

A song sparrow at Queen's Uni­vers­ity Bio­logi­cal Sta­tion in King­ston, Ca­na­da. (Cre­dit: Scott Mac­Dou­gall-Shack­le­ton).


Lapierre and fel­low re­search­ers used an acous­tic loca­t­ion sys­tem to check wheth­er male song spar­rows at the 7,400-acre re­search sta­t­ion pref­er­en­tially sing highly shared song types, or use all types in­ter­change­ably. 

They found no gen­er­al ten­den­cy ei­ther way among the male popula­t­ion as a whole. In­stead, per­for­mance of highly shared songs was de­ter­mined more by in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences like age and the kind of neigh­bor­hood the spar­rows live in, they said. “Tougher” neigh­bor­hoods had a high­er per­cent­age of spar­rows en­gag­ing in song-shar­ing bouts, where­as “mild-mannered” ar­eas tended to sup­port more con­flict-averse spar­rows that avoid us­ing shared song types.

Old­er ma­les’ great­er ten­den­cy to­ward song shar­ing sug­gests these birds may be more will­ing or able to risk con­flict and may have more ex­pe­ri­ence in which songs work well in their ar­ea, the re­search­ers spec­u­late.

"The nov­el­ty of this study was that we looked at how birds use songs rath­er than just ex­am­in­ing the con­tent of their rep­er­toires," added study co-au­thor Eliz­a­beth MacDougall-Shackleton. The find­ings are pub­lished in the June 20 on­line is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Be­havioural Ecol­o­gy and So­ci­o­bi­ology.


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Singing the same songs as your neighbors may sound harmonious. But among song sparrows, it’s more akin to flinging insults back and forth than it is to a team-building exercise, scientists have found. “Song sharing,” —a tendency among some sparrows to sing mostly their species’ “greatest hits” rather than a more widely varied repertoire —is a relatively “aggressive and attention-seeking behaviour,” said Janet Lapierre, a visiting biologist at Queen's University Biological Station near Kingston, Ontario. It’s “most often displayed by belligerent older males," added Lapierre, who is from the University of Western Ontario and is lead author of a report on the new research. Lapierre and fellow researchers used an acoustic location system to check whether male song sparrows at the 7,400-acre research station preferentially sing highly shared song types, or use all types interchangeably. They found no general tendency either way among the male population as a whole. Instead, performance of highly shared songs was determined more by individual differences like age and the kind of neighbourhood the sparrows live in, they said. “Tougher” neighbourhoods had a higher percentage of sparrows engaging in more aggressive song-sharing bouts, whereas “mild-mannered” areas tended to support more conflict-averse sparrows that avoid using shared song types. Older males’ greater tendency toward song sharing suggests these birds may be more willing or able to risk conflict and may have more experience in which songs are effective signals in their local area, the researchers speculate. "The novelty of this study was that we looked at how birds use songs rather than just examining the content of their repertoires," added study co-author Elizabeth MacDougall-Shackleton. The findings are published in the June 20 online issue of the research journal Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology.