A fascinating study out of the University of Guelph has documented changes over time in the songs of Savannah Sparrows. Studying 800 individual birds over the course of three decades, the researchers found that certain parts of the song did not change, but others were subject to strong pressures of cultural evolution. Some of these changes, particularly the shortening and lowering of the final trill, were strongly correlated with increased reproductive success, suggesting a cultural process of sexual selection.
For the most part, Savannah Sparrow males learn and sing only one primary song their entire lives. Young males learn their songs from their fathers, but also from their neighbors, and gravitate towards the more successful males. In this way, the dialects of the most desirable males tend to predominate. On Kent Island, at any rate, the sexiest song is one that ends with a low, short trill.
The full study can be downloaded here (PDF).
In the latest Larkwire release, you may have noticed a subtle change: on the group comparison page, recordings are no longer presented in alphabetical order (AK to WY), but are now in geographical order, north to south and west to east (AK to FL).
Because so much of song variation is geographical, it makes sense to present the sound samples organized that way as well, even when there are no recognized subspecies. The only exception to this is when there are subspecies, we make sure that they’re grouped together regardless of geography.
We just released an update to all Larkwire songpacks that includes a number of improvements, among them a more detailed indication of subspecies sounds. For example, below you can see each White-breasted Nuthatch recording is tagged by subspecies; and below that the same for Fox Sparrow.
I have to confess that when Michael O’Brien first approached me about having us add this information, I thought it would appeal only to the most elite earbirders. But I realize now that I was completely wrong. For anyone who’s trying to learn these sounds, having the subspecies marked out is invaluable. Here’s why.
One of the key challenges we face as learners is the variability of bird sounds. Trying to distinguish White-breasted Nuthatch from Red-breasted, for example, is made all the harder by the fact that White-breasted calls are so variable. You may master it for one recording, but then be completely baffled by the next.
The subspecies labels help us by giving us hooks to hang onto and also by helping us focus on one subset of sounds at a time. These are time-tested learning techniques that are invaluable when coping with variability.
In fact, they’re not limited to subspecies distinctions. In some places (e.g., Great Horned Owl, below), we’ve tagged sounds with gender. Again, by adding structure, we help you cope with variability. And besides, it’s just so fascinating!
I’ve always thought that nest parasitism (e.g., cuckoos laying eggs in other species’ nests) seemed particularly evil and wondered what defences species have evolved against this. An amazing study from Australia has just come out showing that Superb Fairy-Wren mothers basically teach their chicks a food password. If the nestlings don’t give the password, they aren’t fed! Presumably, nest parasites (such as cuckoos) haven’t evolved the ability to learn the password and therefore won’t succeed.
The mothers actually vocalize these special calls to their eggs and the study shows that the babies learn the calls before hatching. Once hatched, the chicks’ begging calls include the “password call” that the mother gave. Different mothers give different calls and the study shows that these variations are not genetic but learned. It would be very interesting to know more about the call variations used by the mothers.
The other thing that would be amazing to observe would be a nest in which both alien and native babies were present—in order to see whether mothers actually feed their own babies and ignore the others.
One of the fascinating challenges to creating a new Larkwire songpack is organizing the sounds into similarity groups. With landbirds, for instance, we have a group such as “Robin-like,” which includes tanagers, several vireos and other species whose songs are confusable with the song of American Robin.
With waterbirds, these groups don’t cross taxonomic families quite as much. Grebes are mostly grouped with grebes, rails with rails, herons with herons, and so forth. But one of the groups that I find fascinating is “Wing sounds,” which includes several ducks and swans. Differences in pitch and quality give very distinct clues to species identity. Here are a few samples:
Mute Swan wing sound
Trumpeter Swan wing sound
Tundra Swan wing sound
Northern Shoveler wing sound
Common Goldeneye wing sound
Surf Scoter wing sound
We’ve been hard at work on our Larkwire waterbirds songpack and it’s coming together nicely. Despite the fact that none of these species are “songbirds,” there’s wonderful variety and beauty in the sounds that they make.
There’s the strange harrumphing of the Long-tailed Duck:
Of course, the wailing of the Common Loon:
And how about the haunting, whistling trill of the Long-billed Curlew:
Over on the ABA blog, Ted Floyd has nice series about documenting rarities with field recordings.
Ted shows that you don’t need an expensive rig to capture audio snapshots of bird sounds. As with photos, the pros will haul around heavy, expensive equipment and get top quality; but in the digital age, anyone can capture remarkably good audio. (In part 2, he discusses audio editing on the cheap, which will make your recordings even better.)
The key point is not just how easy it is, but that (as with birding in general), we so often hear birds rather than see them. For documenting rarities, or just sending out a “twitpic” of your latest find, recording the bird songs and calls that you’re hearing is becoming another regular part of birding.
Blake Mathys on the ABA blog had a nice piece recently where he posed the question: Why is sound so hard? In the piece, he laments, “I find identifying birds by sound to be extremely difficult.” Of course there are many, many birders who share his feeling.
So why IS sound so hard? Or at least, why do people think it is? I made some comments on the ABA blog, but wanted to expand on them here, mainly because I want to counter the suspicion many people have that it’s because they lack some native ability. In short, my answer is: Sound may be hard—but it’s not that hard.
Yes, there are some things that make sound inherently challenging, including:
1) Greater variability (esp., songs), compared to (many) plumages;
2) Transience (it’s much easier to compare something seen to a drawing or photo, than something heard to a recording);
3) Most people are visually dominant.
But these difficulties of sound are not the interesting part and not the main story. Every birder out there has already mastered a far more complex auditory skill: human language, and the same skills apply to bird sounds. (Scroll down to the bottom of the Larkwire Glossary to hear some examples of this.)
The problem is not that sound is inherently hard, it’s that the variability and the transience simply make clear that our approach to learning sounds is often flawed.
The fact is that cognitive psychologists could take you into the lab and train you up on nearly any skill, and do so very efficiently. They would do this by carefully controlling three things: 1) the timing of practice; 2) the structure of practice (roughly, from easy to hard); 3) the type of practice (basically, quizzing rather than sheer repetition).
Control these three factors and sound will not be hard.
So why is sound hard outside the lab? Because for most of us, the natural pattern of our exposure to bird sounds violates all three of these critical factors. Timing is too spaced out. Difficulty is random, not controlled. And when we do control timing and difficulty (using CDs), most of us just listen on repeat rather than test ourselves. The very gifted among us learn despite these hurdles; for the rest of us, it’s too hard!
Which is exactly why we designed Larkwire to control all three of these critical factors. The difference that highly structured practice—combined with explanations from a master ear birder—can make is nothing short of remarkable.
Of course, it doesn’t work overnight, but it can make what seemed to be an impossible task efficient and even fun.
Which one is it? (Credit: Macaulay Library)
In addition to the software changes mentioned in the previous post, we’ve begun developing a library of articles to support learning bird sounds.
I know that may sound a little ho-hum, but it’s actually really cool. Bird sounds are complex, definitely akin to language, and learning them well is quite a challenge. There’s so much to say about both bird sounds and the learning process and it’s all fascinating!
We have more articles are on the way—including some great ones by Michael O’Brien. This first batch includes:
- Getting the Most Out of Larkwire: The Basics
- Getting the Most Out of Larkwire: Advanced Listening Skills
- Larkwire Glossary
Most of all, I’m excited to share these articles with you because I believe they will supercharge your learning. Larkwire is a power tool for learning and these are the manual. You can access these articles from within the game via the Help button and also on the web here: http://www.larkwire.com/library/bird-sounds
Happy Birding! Spring is coming … Learn those warblers!
Brian Sullivan has a wonderful piece on the ABA blog about the different stages we go through as our birding skill develops. From “beginner” to “college” to “middle age” to “expert,” he describes an evolution from a state where everything is new and unknown through various degrees of knowledge.
One of the most interesting things Brian points out about this evolution (echoed in the blog comments) is that birders at the very highest level seem to get back to beginner’s mind. The familiar seems new again and “knowledge” stops getting in the way and becomes an aid to experiencing each bird as unique and fascinating. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.”
It seems to me that nowhere is this truer than in learning bird sounds. In the field, some sounds may elude our ability to say what species uttered it. That’s okay. Because there’s so much more to listen for in bird talk than just Who was it?.