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Birds Learn Mating Calls From Older Birds. But What Happens When Older Birds Have Died Out?

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Mar 17, 2021

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Image Credit: taronga.org.au

One of Australia’s rarest songbirds — the regent honeyeater — is slowly losing its mating melodies, further endangering the species’ survival, according to new research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Usually, regent honeyeaters learn their mating melodies from adults in their species. But, the songbird’s population has dropped to a severe extent, leaving almost no adult birds that can teach the younger birds to sing the same melodies. “This lack of ability to communicate with their own species is unprecedented in a wild animal,” Dejan Stojanovic, Ph.D., study co-author, said in a statement.

“If endangered birds are unable to learn how to sing correctly, it seriously impacts their ability to communicate,” lead author Ross Crates, Ph.D., said in a statement. “It could also be exacerbating the honeyeater’s population decline because we know a sexy song increases the odds of reproduction in songbirds. Females will avoid males that sing unusual songs.”


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Researchers found that male honeyeaters sangrich, complex songs in areas with a reasonable population of songbirds, but sang simplified or “totally incorrect” songs in areas where the songbirds were rare. They also discovered that songbirds in captivity sang completely different songs, which could reduce their attractiveness to wild birds once released.

To fix this, researchers devised a new strategy in which they teach captive regent honeyeaters the same songs that adult males from the species sing. The key to this strategy? Audio recordings of the adult birds singing. Researchers say teaching these songbirds the same rich, complex melodies of the older wild birds in their species is imperative to conservation.

“Loss of song culture is a major warning sign the regent honeyeater is on the brink of extinction and we still have a lot to learn about how to help them,” Crates added.

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Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.

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