It is not in the real world Dr. Doolittle. She is an ecologist in Christchurch, New Zealand, specializing in an unknown field of science: bird dialects.
While some birds are born knowing how to sing instinctively, many of them need to be taught how to sing by adults – like humans. These birds can develop regional dialects, which means that their songs sound a little different depending on where you live. Think of Boston and Georgia dialects, but for birds.
Just as speaking the local language can make it easier for humans to match, speaking the dialect of the local birds can increase the chances of a bird finding a companion. More seriously, just as human dialects can sometimes disappear with the globalization of the world, the dialects of birds can be formed or lost as cities grow.
The similarities between human language and bird song are not lost on Molles – or on fellow bird dialers experts.
“There are wonderful similarities,” said Donald Krodzma, American bird scientist, author of “Birdsong for Curious Naturalist: Your Guide to Listening.” “Oral culture and traditions – every breath.”
The first experts to accent birds
For centuries, the song of birds has inspired poets and musicians, but until the 1950s scientists really began to take an interest in bird dialects.
In the 1960s and 1970s, scientists put small birds in soundproofing rooms to see if they were able to sing their songs, according to bird scientist David Luther.
Scientists have found that some birds – those that learn their songs – cannot sing at all. “They just continued like a baby throughout their life,” he said. These birds are known as “real song birds”. In other birds, singing was innate. “When they reach adulthood, they can only sing a perfect song, no problem.”
Scientists have discovered that when birds copy adults, they sometimes make mistakes. This error is in turn copied by other birds, and a local accent develops. This means that dialects can only be found in real song birds because they have an “educated oral tradition,” says Krodzma.
American bird scientist Elizabeth Derby said that dialects can also be created as birds adapt to the local environment. Birds that can be heard better may find a better mate, which means that their song is more likely to be delivered from generation to generation.
It comes to an idea developed by Bernie Krause, founder of vocal ecology, that animals make sounds in different tones so they can all be heard.
Some dialects change quickly – even in the breeding season. Other birds have held their accents for decades. When Luther searched for San Francisco accents from white-crowned birds – a common bird in North America – he found that some dialects had not changed at all in 40 years.
Dialects and dating (in birds)
For something often a result of copying defects, accents can be very helpful.
According to Molise, birds communicate for two reasons: either they are trying to tell their neighbors, or they are trying to attract the females. “Unfortunately, nothing is very poetic,” she said sarcastically.
When it comes to defending the region from other birds of the same species that are not native to the region, knowing the local dialect allows for more complex interaction. Mimicking a note note song is aggressive to birds, so having a large collection of ammunition means the bird can reach his point of view without stepping up interacting with the fighting.
Knowing the local dialect is also useful when it comes to finding a romantic partner.
In many types, the male is singing. According to Mulles, females tend to prefer a familiar accent – it indicates that male birds know the local area, have land, and not just a “passing person.” Some birds are bilingual, or even in three languages - perhaps because they originated around different local dialects. When they mate, Luther said, they will choose to sing the local dialect wherever they choose to settle.
But the lack of a proper accent is not an insurmountable barrier.
Croudsma gave an example of the prairie prairie in Massachusetts, where he lives, which returns every year for the past few years. Although the bird has a very atypical song, it attracts females and raises children every year.
He said, “Someone might say, ‘Okay, there is a new effect, reminded of a very different song and all the females think this is exciting.’” But this is just wild guess.
It’s something researchers think of in places like New Zealand, where threatened birds are sometimes reintroduced into new areas. Researchers want to make sure that if they reintroduce birds, they will reintegrate them, even if they don’t have the right tone.
In Molise’s experiment, he tends to work if a group of birds is reintroduced at once, so they have associate birds with a strange accent.
She co-re-introduces Kokaku – an original blue-gray bird with a violin-like call – in the New Zealand region hundreds of kilometers from his birthplace. At first, she said, newcomers may be born among themselves. But in the future, they may merge. The descendants of the new arrivals are likely to start mating with the descendants of the indigenous people who grew up familiar with the new and local dialect.
“The female is not necessarily looking for someone to match the song her father was singing,” Molise said. “She finds a mate that fits into the region she is looking for stability – he’s not just a strange ball bird that he might not belong to.”
How humans change bird accents
With cities around the world closed, Derryberry signed a series of questions.
Over the years, birds began to sing at a higher level in cities to be heard about poor traffic and construction. What will happen to the birds when the cities are silent? If it’s quieter, will the new generation of birds sing on a low tone? And the following year, when it’s time to breed, will it be heard once the city noise returns?
She still works to answer these questions, but Krodsma suspects that the short period of calm can be long enough to have any effect on bird accents.
Even if our coronavirus closings do not change bird accents this time, it is worth thinking about how bird accents are formed – and destroyed – in general. Krodzma says that something as small as a power line can be enough to split a group of birds and create new accents.
Mulls remembers finding historical records of the Kokaku Native People who are now gone.
And she said, “Some of the songs on these tapes were just amazing – strange metal sounds you could never imagine from a bird.”
“It was so frustrating to hear some of these and think, we’ll never hear that again.”
Design and graphics by Jason Cook and Natalie Long. The development of Marco Chacon.