Birds sing jazz for pleasure

European starling

Professor Lauren Riters, the lead scientist in a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is published in the journal Scientific Reports believes that when birds sing for pleasure they like to sing jazz! Comment: they don’t know it is jazz. It is a human label for a type of music 🙂 .

She claims that birds not only sing for a purpose, namely to find a mate and to mark out territory, but also for pleasure and that the dawn chorus is a similar to a group of people singing for fun at a friend’s wedding. It is “gregarious singing”.

When birds sing it can sound like free-form jazz. It is different from the structured songs made by male birds when attracting a mate. Birdsong is quite hard to produce and birds need to practice. The need to warm up to their optimum level and it is claimed that when they do this they are free-form singing and it sounds like jazz.

European starling

European starling. Picture: Ryan Schain

The study looked at European starlings. There were chosen because they form large flocks in winter and autumn and they sing very quickly.

Through a carefully contrived reward-based test they decided that the starlings felt good (entered into a positive state) when singing for pleasure. She says that the presence of flock-mates stimulate song and the birds produce gregarious song because it is rewarding.

Our results suggest that birds sing because they feel good and that singing helps them to maintain this positive state

She also implied (from the report in The Times) that birds produce their own natural opioids. We know that opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and morphine induce pleasure and reduced pain. They are endogenous chemicals. They reward certain behaviours and they believe that birds produce natural opioids as a reward for singing for pleasure.

They decided this by treating the starlings with low doses of fentanyl which triggered a lot of gregarious singing. The professor said that opioids cause singing behaviour. Does singing produce opioids, however? That’s my question by the way.

When they switched off the opioid receptors in the brain of the starlings it reduced their singing behaviour.