There are several birds that chirp melodies through the skies; these are known as songbirds, and scientists have always wondered where songbirds get their songs from. Some of the most widely-accepted theories include species learning by social interactions between the parents and other hatchlings or getting passed on by genetics.
In a study published in the journal Ecology & Evolution, researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden put the ideas to test to figure out once and for all how song discrimination occurs in songbirds.
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In their testing, they played sound recordings of pied and collared flycatcher songs for the opposing species only to learn that the juveniles weren’t very responsive to songs made by the opposing species.
They then tried mixing and matching eggs between the species without alerting the parental units to their ruse. This effectively tricked the parental birds into raising chicks that weren’t their own to see if the chicks would react to, learn, and sing along to the other species’ songs.
The results showed that the juveniles largely ignored songs from the other species and continued to respond to their own species’ songs even though they were never raised by their own species to begin with. This created a strong case against the social interactions theory and instead pointed an assuring finger to genetic factors having something to do with song discrimination.
Just to take things one step further, the researchers even went ahead and bred bird hybrids between the pied and collared flycatchers. The results to this final test showed that the birds continued to discriminate.
Even more interestingly, the hybrids were more responsive to pied flycatcher songs, which suggests that if genetics are a major component in birdsongs, the pied flycatchers may have dominant genes compared to those from the collared flycatchers.
If you think about it, having species-specific birdsongs makes sense; it’s an important part of survival to be able to distinguish between one species or another, especially for mating purposes.
“Song differences across species are vital for birds to choose appropriate mates and negotiate complex social interactions. A genetic basis for song discrimination in early life may help explain how song differences are maintained in a noisy, diverse world,” study co-author David Wheatcroft explained in a statement.
Perhaps genetics aren’t the only factor in birdsong development, but they certainly appear to be one of the most influential. Perhaps additional research into birdsong development could uncover some more answers to the remaining questions.