An Endangered Bird Is Slowly Losing Its Love Song

If you stop to listen to the world around you, the sounds of songbirds will usually be there to greet you. Those songs do more than provide background noise for those of us who stop to listen, they are also used by male songbirds to attract mates.

It all works quite well but when a songbird loses his song, he also loses his love-life along with it. That is what held the interest of ecologist Ross Crates for years, as he got deeply involved in studying the song of regent honeyeaters.

These birds found in Australia were common at one time, but during the 1950s, habitat loss caused them to eventually drop onto the critically endangered list. Today, there are thought to be fewer than 400 left in the wild.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Like many large bird populations that gather in flocks, the regent honeyeaters would gather together in the winter and sing. The young birds would learn the songs that could attract a mate, but those large flocks are a thing of the past.

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Since the birds are now spread out, and in many cases, they fly on their own, the young birds don’t have any way of learning the new songs and that is having a disastrous effect. As they lose their ability to sing the song, they lose the option of mating.

Photo: Wikimedis Commons

In a study, Crates compares the learning of songs to what happens when a human baby learns their language. They learn by listening but if you can’t listen to others, you don’t know what to learn.

As Crates continued to study the bird population, he discovered that many of the male birds are learning the songs they sing from other species of birds. Some 12 percent will sing a version of song that includes many different bird species, such as the cuckoo shrikes or friarbirds. This may work for some birds but for the female regent honeyeater, there isn’t anything quite like the true song of the male.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Since the bird population is already struggling to survive, this is not good news for the few birds that are left.

According to the New York Post, a conservation biologist at Georgetown University, Peter Marra, said, “This research suggests that the loss of a song language once the population reaches a very small size could accelerate their decline.” Although he wasn’t involved with the research, it’s obvious that the birds are having problems.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Typically, a young male bird will spend its early life learning all he can about the songs and structure that have kept its species alive for years.

They realize that it is important to find a way to preserve the ability of this species to continue singing.

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