Tag Archives: song

Wildfires can change the songs birds sing

Wildfires seem to alter the songs of birds living in affected forests, a new paper suggests.

The study focused on Hermit Warblers, a small songbird native to North and Central America. These birds woo their mates with songs following formulas and patterns, unlike the ones they use to defend territory — these are more complex and creative. Oftentimes, there is a song formula that becomes dominant within certain populations or geographic areas.

Hermit Warbler (Dendroica occidentalis).
Image via Wikimedia.

Researchers recorded over a thousand of their songs in California from 2009 to 2014. They report finding over 35 regional dialects in song formulas, and that wildfires and other disturbances have a significant effect on the way these birds sing their songs in the short term by mixing populations together.

Environmental artists

“Our surveys suggest that song dialects arose in sub-populations specialized to different forest types,” said the paper’s lead author, Brett Furnas. “Over the longer term, fire caused some birds to flee and created a vacuum for other birds to fill. The net result is that some areas now have birds singing more than one dialect resulting in a complex diversity of songs throughout California.”

The species is immediately — and negatively — impacted by disturbances such as wildfires or elective timber harvests, according to the authors. However, they do ultimately fare well under the effects of such events, due to changes in forest structure and an increased influx of pollinating insects (food).

The authors proposed that birdsong can help us understand how biodiversity is maintained in certain environments. These birds learn songs through imitation, and with time this creates song variants that are characteristic of individual areas.

The study recorded the formulaic songs from 1,588 males across 101 study sites in the state between 2009 and 2014, providing the first comprehensive mapping of Hermit Warbler songs throughout California. Each song fit one of 35 dialects.

Song dialects tended to be isolated to different forest types. Local song diversity, meanwhile, increased with the amount of local fires. Using data from ten study areas revisited in 2019, the researchers also showed that song structure had begun to change since the initial visits 5-10 years earlier, with locations that saw wildfires between visits showing the greatest increase in diversity.

The paper, “Wildfires and Mass Effects of Dispersal Disrupt the Local Uniformity of Type I Songs of Hermit Warblers in California,” has been published in the journal The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

Can a song be universal? Apparently so, according to science

Music is universal. We have all thought that at some point, with one song causing similar reactions in different people, making us want to dance, sign or even generating a sense of love. Now, science has taken us one step closer to what makes some sound progressions so universal.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

A group of researchers looked at research in ethnomusicology from 315 cultures and a collection of song recordings from different countries. They did a cross-cultural analysis to understand the similarities and differences and found that the structures and melodic elements of songs are the same worldwide.

The study, published in Science, took quite a bit of work. The team had to go through archives, libraries, and private collections, compiling a massive database of songs to carry out their comparison. They called the database “Natural History of Song”, formed by 118 songs from 86 different cultures of 30 different regions.

“We are so used to being able to find any piece of music that we like on the internet,” said psychologist Samuel Mehr of The Music Lab at Harvard University. “But there are thousands and thousands of recordings buried in archives that are not accessible online. We didn’t know what we would find.”

The team worked with an ethnographic database of 315 cultures and looked for mentions of a song. All cultures had their specific music style described. More than 5,000 descriptions of songs from 60 cultures in 30 regions were included in the database — a painstaking task.

The researchers took detailed notes about the songs such as their length, the moment of the day when it was sung, the number of singers, the pitch range, the tempo, and many other structural details. They used a set of tools to help their tasks such as machine summaries, listener ratings, and expert transcriptions.

Based on their findings, the team argues that music can be tied to specific cognitive and affective faculties. These include language, as all societies use words in songs, motor control, as everybody dances across the world, auditory analysis, as every music system as tone signatures, and aesthetics, as melodies and rhythms, are balanced.

“Lullabies and dance songs are ubiquitous and they are also highly stereotyped,” said evolutionary biologist Manvir Singh of Harvard University. “For me, dance songs and lullabies tend to define the space of what music can be. They do very different things with features that are almost the opposite of each other.”

This isn’t the first time the researchers looked at this topic. In the past, they discovered that listeners were able to identify when a song was a lullaby, even not having heard the song before. Now, the new research appears to support those findings.

There was some variation between the songs, the team found. Some songs are of course more formal, while others are more religious and other more rousing. The variation increased between songs in a specific culture. This means that our brains could be able to understand music on a universal level, the team argued.

“The music of a society is not a fixed inventory of cultural behaviors, but rather the product of underlying psychological faculties that make certain kinds of sound feel appropriate to certain social and emotional circumstances,” the researchers concluded in the paper.

Wilson's Bird of Paradise.

Birds-of-paradise males need more than looks to get a girlfriend

Female birds-of-paradise are very picky with their mates, new research shows.

Wilson's Bird of Paradise.

Wilson’s Bird of Paradise (Diphyllodes respublica).
Image credits Serhanoksay / Wikimedia.

Birds-of-paradise didn’t get their name for naught. The males of the species are renowned for their incredible plumage, complex calls, and dazzling dance moves. However, all this fluff isn’t enough to convince the discerning objects of their affections. A new study reports that the female preference may also be tied to where the males ply their courting: on the ground or up in the trees.

Flirts from paradise

Most of the 40 known species of bird-of-paradise live in New Guinea and northern Australia. For the study, the team analyzed 961 video and 176 audio clips retrieved from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library archive. They also drew on 393 museum specimens from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Based on this material, they say that certain behaviors and traits are correlated, as follows:

  • The number of colors on a male and the number of different sounds he makes. The more colors he sports, the larger his repertoire.
  • Dance complexity and the number of sounds a male can produce. The most dazzling dancers also have the widest range of sounds they weave into their songs.
  • Males that display in a group (a lek) tend to have more colors. The team believes this helps them stand out better amid the competition, canceling out some of the drawbacks of the lek.

Victoria's riflebird.

A male (black, top) Victoria’s riflebird (Ptiloris victoriae) displays for a female (brown, bottom). Victoria’s riflebirds are also birds-of-paradise, native to northeastern Queensland, Australia.
Image credits Francesco Veronesi / Wikipedia.

According to the study, female preference drives the evolution of physical and behavioral traits that make the species’ males so distinctive. Lead author Russell Ligon says that females evaluate not only how attractive a male is, but also how well he sings and dances. Their preference for certain combinations of traits results in what his team calls a “courtship phenotype” — the phenotype is an individual’s traits determined by both genetics and environment.

Because females pick and choose mates based on a combination of characteristics (rather than a single one), males have had ample opportunity to ‘experiment’ with their courtship displays, the team reports. This led to the large variation seen in the species’ courting behaviors today — if females were looking for a single characteristic, all the males would simply try to double down on it. Of course, it also helps that the birds have few natural predators to interrupt all the romancing.

Female scrutiny may also have a surprising effect: determining whether a male will perform courting behavior on the ground or up in the trees. The researchers say that location matters when selecting the best approach to impress potential mates:

“Species that display on the ground have more dance moves than those displaying in the treetops or the forest understory,” explains Edwin Scholes, study co-author and leader of the Cornell Lab’s Bird-of-Paradise Project.

“On the dark forest floor, males may need to up their game to get female attention.”

Males of species that display above the canopy — where there is less interference from trees and shrubs to block sounds — sing more complex songs. Their dance moves, however, are less elaborate.

The paper has been published in the journal PLOS Biology.


When mice ‘sing’ they produce ultrasounds we’ve only seen in jet engines


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

To attract mates or fend off competitors, rodents such as mice and rats utter ultrasound vibrations that are inaudible to the human ear. These curious high-frequency sounds are produced using a resonance mechanism only previously seen in jet engines.

Now that’s a purr

In 2005, scientists showed that male mice ‘sing’, employing a rich repertoire. Being so small, their songs are too high for humans to hear but you can still get a glimpse if you transform the pressure waves in a lower frequency range.

A mouse song can be described in terms of syllables (a unit of sound separated from other sounds by silence) and varying pitch. A phrase may contain a sequence of syllables while a phrase type is a sequence that is repeatedly reproduced. This discovery has proven useful as a model to study human vocalization disabilities like stuttering. Unfortunately for mice, knowing this, humans have also made all sorts of gadgets that produce ultrasounds that repel the rodents.

“The mouse brain and behavior for vocal communication is not as primitive and as innate as myself and many other scientists have considered it to be,” Erich Jarvis, a neurobiologist at Duke University, explained. “Mice have more similarities in their vocal communication with humans than other species like our closest relatives,” Jarvis added, referring to chimpanzees.

Until recently, it wasn’t clear how mice are able to produce their high-pitched vocalizations. One previously proposed mechanism is similar to how a tea kettle makes whistling sounds when the water boils. Another deals with vibrations of the vocal cord. Neither of the two turned out to be correct after researchers from University of Cambridge and Washington State University studied ultra-high-speed videos of 100,000 frames per second.

The analysis suggests when mice make their love songs, the vocal folds remain completely still. Instead, a small air jet was seen coming out from the windpipe and hitting the inner wall of the larynx. This caused a characteristic resonance and ultimately produced the ultrasonic whistle, as reported in Current Biology.

“This mechanism is known only to produce sound in supersonic flow applications, such as vertical takeoff and landing with jet engines, or high-speed subsonic flows, such as jets for rapid cooling of electrical components and turbines,” said Dr Anurag Agarwal, study co-author and head of the Aero-acoustics laboratories at Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. “Mice seem to be doing something very complicated and clever to make ultrasound.”

Mice are the most common animal model used in science but despite thousands of hours of studying, the rodent still has many tricks up its sleeve. Very little is still known about how mice and rats use ultrasounds to communicate, and bats might even use this sort of mechanism as well.

For some really wicked animal tunes, check out the pied butcherbird.


This is the oldest song in history: a 3,400-year-old hymn

Some 3,400 years ago, Ugarit was a thriving port. The ancient city spearheaded the northern Syrian coast, maintaining trade with the Hittite Empire, Egypt and Cyprus (then called Alashiya). At the height of its development, it wasn’t only a trade center, but also an artistic one. However, the city ultimately fell and its history of centuries was forgotten until 1928, when a peasant opened a tomb.

In 1973, an archive containing around 120 tablets was discovered during rescue excavations; in 1994 more than 300 further tablets dating to the end of the Late Bronze Age were discovered within a large ashlar masonry building. Within them there were musical notations dating from 1,400 BC. Most of them were too damaged to be recomposed, but one particular song was so well preserved that it could be played. Here’s the same song (known as Hurrian Hymn No. 6) performed with a solo lyre and a more interpretive style by Michael Levy. Any piece of music can sound different depending on who performs it and what instrument they use.

Unfortunately Hymns 1-5 were not in a state that allowed musical reconstruction. The complete song is one of about 36 such hymns in cuneiform writing, found on fragments of clay tablets excavated in the 1950s from the Royal Palace at Ugarit (present day Ras Shamra, Syria). Richard L. Crocker and Robert R. Brown who study musical history produced a record and booklet about the song called Sounds From Silence. Crocker said that this revolutionizes music history.

This evidence proves both the 7-note diatonic scale and harmony were used in music  3,400 years ago. This flies in the face of most musicologists’ views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale no older than the Ancient Greeks, 2000 years ago.

Unfortunately, the lyrics remain a mystery. The Ugarian language itself is not so well understood and in addition, it appears that the language is a local Ugarit dialect, which differs significantly from the dialects known from other sources. It is also possible that the pronunciation of some words was altered from normal speech because of the music. However, it is clear that it was a religious text concerning offerings to the goddess Nikkal, wife of the moon god.

Photo by Loris Romito.

Blue whales singing lower every year, baffled scientists say

Blue whales are not only the biggest living creatures in the world right now, but the biggest ever to have ‘walked’ the face of the earth; they’re also the loudest for that matter. After recovering from near extinction in the beginning of the 20th century, blue whales are finally getting a part of the respect they deserve.

However, researchers cannot understand what is causing these majestic creatures to ‘sing’ at lower frequencies year after year. No one is fully sure of all the uses of the blue whale songs, but it’s known they are used to communicate and as a mating ritual. However, ever since the 1960s, the frequencies which these giants use are getting lower and lower, without anybody being able to give an explanation.


Of course, some theories have emerged, the two most likely being that it’s a direct result of the water pollution or a sign that an almost extinct population is recovering. Mark McDonald, president of Whale Acoustics, a company that specializes in recording the songs of blue whales (yeah, really) originally thought the cause could be noise pollution caused by intensified traffic; however, if this would be the case and they would want to make themselves heard louder, they would use higher, and not lower frequencies. This may be a bit weird because generally lower frequency transmissions are used for long distances, but mister McDonald explains:

Across the frequencies of blue whale song, the underwater transmission losses are nearly the same regardless of frequency. It is absorption which is the primary cause of frequency dependent transmission losses, rather than dispersion in this case, and the absorption loss only begins to become significant when ranges reach thousands of kilometers. Theory tells us the whales can produce higher amplitude songs at higher frequencies, based on given lung volume.


Another possible reason could be a change in the mating rituals. Scientists have long known that only male blue whales sing, and larger (which are usually more mature) specimens sing at lower frequencies. The hypothesis is that the younger guys are trying to emulate the older ones in order to attract females (that seems familiar). Either way, there are many we have yet to understand about the way these marine mammals act. The only good thing is that the blue whale populations is nearing a normal limit; let’s set this as an example for other species too, instead of treating them with less care now that they’re not on the brink of extinction anymore.