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The song sparrow might be nature's best DJ

Male song sparrows don't bore their audience with the same old song.
Kevin Smith
Male song sparrows don't bore their audience with the same old song.

Any parents out there will be familiar with the unique sort of misery that results when your kid has a new favorite song.

They ask to hear it over and over, without regard for the rest of us.

Well, it turns out that song sparrows might be better than children (and many adults, for that matter) when it comes to curating their playlists.

Male sparrows, which attract females by singing, avoid tormenting their listeners with the same old tune.

Instead they woo potential mates with a selection of 6 to 12 different songs.

It might be hard to tell, but that audio clip contains three distinctive sparrow songs, each containing a unique signature of trills and notes.

Even more impressive than the execution, though, is the way sparrows string their songs together.

William Searcy, an ornithologist at the University of Miami, recently published a study in The Royal Society that analyzed patterns of song sparrow serenades.

He said it would be easy for the birds to sing the first song, then the second, then the third and fourth.

"But that's not what song sparrows are doing. They're not going through in a set order. They're varying the order from cycle to cycle, and that's more complicated," he said.

In other words, rather than sing the same playlist every time, they hit shuffle.

"What we're arguing is what they do is keep in memory the whole past cycle so they know what to sing next," Searcy said.

The researchers are not sure why male sparrows shuffle their songs.

But past work has shown that females prefer hearing a wider range of tunes, so maybe a new setlist keeps females interested.

It can take half an hour for a song sparrow to cycle through its repertoire. And the work suggests sparrows can remember a half-hour setlist, and then mix it up for the next round of tunes.

"I think that what's surprising about this is the scale," said Jon Sakata, another ornithologist who was not involved in the study. "You know, 20 to 30 minutes is quite a long time in terms of cycling through different song types."

Sakata studies vocal learning in songbirds at McGill University. He says there are parallels between sparrows remembering a setlist and humans remembering what we said half an hour ago in conversation.

"You find yourself in conversation, you're like, I can't remember if I said this before," he explains. "If you find some parallels in non-human species, then that kind of makes you appreciate those non-human species as well."

Searcy summed up the sparrows a bit more simply.

"They're smarter than you might think," he said.

Not "bird brains" at all.

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Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Michael Levitt
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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