Songbirds need to warm up, like an opera singer, before their dawn chorus

A study published in the journal Animal Behaviour has discovered that songbirds need to warm up – metaphorically speaking backstage just like opera singers – in preparation for their dawn chorus songs to attract mates and impress male competition.

Swamp sparrow
Swamp sparrow studied by researchers for its birdsong. Photo: Eastside Audubon Society.

They need to practice and warm up because their songs are physically demanding. Birdsong looks effortless but it requires practice, a warmup, speed and dexterity according to Jason Dingh PhD, a biology student who did the study as a Duke University in North Carolina undergraduate.

The more they warmed up, the better they got. They’re able to perform more difficult songs later in the morning.

Stephen Nowicki, the study’s co-author said that it’s like they’re warming up backstage before the sun comes up and the curtain rises. The early birdsong is mainly created by males with the intention of impressing rivals and potential mates.

They studied the swamp sparrow which produces a simple trill containing up to 5 notes. They repeat it around 5 to 10 times a second; modulating their sound by opening and closing their beaks which they coordinate with voicebox and breath control.

The researchers found that in their warmup they started with slower songs with a limited range and after preforming them hundreds of times they sing at higher and lower pitches and at a faster tempo.

Researchers had earlier found that a tune well-sung is a turn-on for females and a threat to males who are in competition. In Britain, songbirds breed during the warmest part of the year when there is food and daylight. The first songbirds to sing are British residents such as robins and great tits. They are joined later by migrant birds such as chiffchaffs and black-caps. Peaktime to enjoy the dawn chorus is May and June in the UK.

The Eastside Audubon Society says that the swamp sparrow is considered abundant and stable in their range in eastern North America. Their population numbers vary from year to year and they don’t know why. They say that the swamp sparrow’s song is “a monotone trill reminiscent of but warmer than the song of a Chipping Sparrow. More likely heard in winter is the call note, a sharp metallic tchip which many compare to that of an Eastern Phoebe (Bell and Kennedy)”.

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Post Category: Birds