Teaching honeyeaters to sing the right song

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A rare Australian songbird, a female regent honeyeater, at the Capertee National Park in NSW. Picture: AFP/Australian National University/David Stowe media_cameraA rare Australian songbird, a female regent honeyeater, at the Capertee National Park in NSW. Picture: AFP/Australian National University/David Stowe

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Male songbirds usually learn their tunes from adult mentors*. But when young birds lack proper role models, they hit all the wrong notes — and have less success attracting mates.

For five years, ecologist* Ross Crates at the Australian National University has tracked the singing ability and breeding success of critically endangered regent honeyeaters. These distinctive black and yellow birds were once common across Australia, but habitat loss since the 1950s has shrunk their population to only about 300 or 400 wild birds today.

While male birds once formed large winter flocks, now they are sparsely distributed across the landscape, so many fly solo. That means fewer honeyeater mentors are nearby during young birds’ impressionable* first year.

“Song learning in many birds is a process similar to humans learning languages — they learn by listening to other individuals,” said Dr Crates.

“If you can’t listen to other individuals, you don’t know what you should be learning.”

The researchers found that a significant portion of male birds appear to be learning tunes exclusively from other species they encounter. About 12 per cent of male regent honeyeaters end up producing mangled versions of songs typically sung by noisy friarbirds and black-faced cuckoo-shrikes, among other species.

In some species, such as mockingbirds, song mimicry* adds flourish to love songs. But the female regent honeyeaters aren’t impressed.

Unconventional male singers were less successful in wooing* mates, the scientists found.

“We think the females are avoiding breeding and nesting with males that sing unusual songs,” Dr Crates said.

Endangered Australian songbird 'losing its song'

For a population already on the brink of extinction, that’s worrying.

“This research suggests that the loss of a song language once the population reaches a very small size could accelerate their decline,” said Peter Marra, a conservation biologist at Georgetown University in the US who was not involved in the paper.

The precise reason females remained aloof* was not clear.

“When male birds sing, it’s like putting out an ad saying, ‘I’m over here, I’m species X, I’m Bob, and I’m really interested in finding a partner,’” said Scott Ramsay, a behavioural ecologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, who was not involved in the research.

It could be that female honeyeaters aren’t even recognising these unconventional singers as potential partners, and so they’re not approaching them, he said. Or it could be that they approach, “but then things go wrong if the males get courtship signals wrong.”

Taronga Zoo centenary media_cameraRegent honeyeaters at Taronga Zoo, NSW. Picture: Toby Zerna

Most male birds spend several months in their first year learning and refining the songs they’ll recite for the rest of their lives. Some birds learn from their fathers, but regent honeyeaters leave the nest before they learn to sing, so the males need to find other mentors.

“We need to be aware of the importance of preserving song culture in birds — it’s possible to have a population that’s still genetically viable*, but isn’t viable in terms of passing on cultural knowledge,” said Carl Safina, an ecologist at Stony Brook University in the US who was not involved in the research.

“Some elements of what these birds need to do to survive isn’t instinctive, it has to be learned,” he said.

Dr Crates’ team has begun putting their findings into action. To help young birds in captive breeding programs learn their notes, they’ve started playing male song recordings and also housed capable male singers next to young learners. The hope is that these veteran vocalists can pass on their songs to the next generation.

The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

media_cameraA regent honeyeater, photographed by Leila Jeffreys, which was part of an exhibition at Taronga Zoo in Sydney as part of the zoo’s Muse project. Picture: Leila Jeffreys

GLOSSARY

mentors: experienced and trusted advisers ecologist: scientist expert in natural communities or ecosystems impressionable: easily influenced mimicry: action or skill of imitating someone wooing: trying to gain the love of aloof: cool and distant viable: capable of working successfully

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QUICK QUIZ

    What is the bird called? Where does it live? What is the problem with there being fewer birds? Who is Ross? Why is he in the story? What things are the scientists doing to help the birds learn the right songs?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Create a Character
Think of two more actions that you think could be done to help the regent honeyeaters to survive. Write them down. For each action, write the reasons why you chose this and why you think it will help.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

2. Extension
If you could interview a male honeyeater and a female honeyeater to find out more about this story, what questions would you ask? Write three questions for a male and three questions for a female. Then, think about what their answers might be. For each question, write down what you think the honeyeaters might tell you.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and Creative Thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
Adjectives
An adjective is a describing word. They are often found describing a noun. To start with look at the words before the nouns.

Search for all the adjectives you can find in the article

Did you find any repeat adjectives or are they all different?

Extension: Pick three of your favourite adjectives from the text and put them in your own sentences to show other ways to use them.

Have you used any in your writing?

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