Monday, July 26, 2021

the music of the birds

Every once in a while, I've seen an exciting paper about birdsong in the news releases, but, somehow, the thought I should do something about birdsong hasn't resulted in action, until now. The work that made it happen was the PNAS paper on duetting wrens, which I discuss in some detail. As a less than perfect musician I am very impressed by the extremely rapid turn-taking between wren duet partners, which amounts to up to 300 events per minute. Playing three notes on a beat at 100 beats per minute is something I can manage on a good day with a following wind, but I might struggle doing it precisely on time in a duet situation, while paying attention to an equally fast-moving partner.

Another exciting thing I learnt is that the mockingbird doesn't just mock, it sticks together borrowed parts in original ways, just like any human composer would. Oh, and there is a cellist in there as well.

My musical musings on birdsong are out now:

Tuning in to bird behaviour

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 14, 26 July 2021, Pages R879-R882

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The rapidly alternating duet singing in plain-tailed wrens is one of the most impressive examples of cooperation in birdsong. (Photo: © Melissa Coleman.)

Update 9.4.2022: Regarding the cello/nightingale duo I mention in the introductory part of the feature, the BBC now admits that it brought in a human nightingale to step in in case the bird failed to perform, as the Guardian reports today. So in the worst case, all of the recorded nightingale performance could be fake, but I guess it's impossible to be sure now.

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