Sunday, July 12, 2009

Love Song

In class, we had talked about how some ornithologists believe that there are bird species designated as "singers" and that such birds use their song as enjoyment outside of the usual warning signals and mating calls. Well, today on the BBC the mating call function of birdsong, and how it differs between "singers" and "non singers," was explored. Apparently, there seems to be a correlation between plumage and ability to sing. The more colorful and extravagant a bird's plumage, the less likely it is to be a "singer," while the birds with the highest capacity for song are the most plain when it comes to appearance. The nightingale is a prime example. Considered to be the best songbird by many in Britain, its brown feathers with white underbelly also merit it the title of most plain. In contrast, the bright and colorful parakeet has few vocal gifts. The intricate songs of the singers are believed to be instrumental in attracting a mate, so the extravagant plumage of the "non singers" is simply that species' way of compensating.

Swedish ornithologists have noted the importance in singing ability and its connection to mating in the migrating reed sparrows that travel to the country. Males arrive first, and station themselves in areas within a certain radius of one another, establishing their territories. They then proceed to chirp and call to one another, as a way of letting the others know that the territory is occupied and "you better stay away or else." Then the females arrive, and the calls that the males made to one another quickly become more and more intricate and varied as they are transformed into elaborate songs aimed at attracting mates. Invariably, the male with the most complex song (that is, the song with the most syllables) gets the girl. Gives a whole new meaning to the term, "serenade," doesn't it?

Song is also used in the courtship of other animals, including some mammals. The gibbon, for example, is known to use song not only in courtship and mating, but also in family bonding. The male gibbon begins singing a loud, resonate song that can last up to a quarter of an hour, with hopes that there are females around somewhere that will hear him. If there are and they are impressed by the song, a female will seek out the male gibbon and they proceed to sing a duet of sorts (I'm sure it's absolutely horrible to listen to) also lasting up to 15 minutes, with it ending in a solo aria by the female. When the happy couple has a baby, the parents will, at some point, sing to the child and when it is old enough, the baby gibbon begins to sing back. This family sing along is thought to foster family solidarity.

Funny how other species use song in many of the same ways that humans have used it. Women ave been choosing husbands with impressive larynx for ages, and if their husbands can't sing, well, at least they're good looking. And those agonizing family car rides filled with refrains of "The Wheels on the Bus," are actually the foundation upon which your family's solidarity and well-being are founded. Who knew?

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