We sometimes hear about videos going viral, but it is possible for songs to go viral as well. I’m not talking about the latest hit we download online, I’m talking about a species of bird that has a song of their own that went viral. Not only did it happen, but scientists were able to track it.
Birds do change their tune from time to time but many of them continue to sing the same old song, year after year. It works to attract the female and defend their territories, so why change it?
Recently, however, they were able to track how a song traveled some 2000 miles across the United States and Canada.
Birdwatchers collected recordings from 2000 – 2019. It was discovered that a new song had overtaken a historic song ending by the white-throated sparrows from British Columbia. Now, those sparrows from British Columbia to central Ontario have dumped the three-note finish to a song in favor of a two-note finish.
We sometimes hear music going viral among people, and it can stick around for years. It often has to do with human emotions, but they have no idea why sparrows are changing their tune.
According to the senior author from the University of Northern British Columbia, Prof. Otter:
“One rare sparrow song ‘went viral’. As far as we know, it’s unprecedented.
We don’t know of any other study that has ever seen this sort of spread through cultural evolution of a song type.”
It isn’t out of the ordinary for certain bird species to change their tune as time goes by. For the most part, it tends to be a local phenomena and it becomes more of a dialect rather than something that is seen across the species. As it turns out, the two-note ending to this song spread much further.
White-throated sparrows in Canada had a three-note triplet at the end of their song in the 1960s. When Prof. Otter moved to British Columbia in the late 1990s, he noticed that there was a two-note ending in much of the local sparrow population. As 40 years passed, the song ending in two notes rather than three became universal west of the Rocky Mountains.
Recordings of white-throated sparrow songs started to be researched further by scientists. Online databases were used by many citizen birdwatchers in North America. What they found was that the two-note ending was more than popular west of the Rocky Mountains, it was spreading east quickly.
“Originally, we measured the dialect boundaries in 2004 and it stopped about halfway through Alberta,” Prof. Otter said. “By 2014, every bird we recorded in Alberta was singing this western dialect, and we started to see it appearing in populations as far away as Ontario, which is 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) from us.”
The scientists feel that wintering grounds from the sparrows were responsible for the ending of the song changing so widely. The birds were singing those songs on their wintering grounds, so new song types may have been picked up by juvenile males if they traveled in the other dialect areas.
Tiny Geolocators were then attached to sparrows and they showed that the Western sparrows would travel East and those birds were then adopting the new tune.
It is quite rare for male songbirds over such a wide range to change their tune, according to what researchers reported in Current Biology.
The researchers thought that the birds having the new song might actually have an advantage over other birds. They are now looking into whether female birds are preferring the two-note ending or the three-note ending.
“In white-throated sparrows, we might find a situation in which the females actually like songs that aren’t typical in their environment—and if that is the case, there is a big advantage to any male who can sing a new song type,” Prof. Otter said according to the Good News Network.
They are continuing to use private recordings from birdwatchers that are uploading the bird songs to apps and websites. It will give them a greater view of what is taking place.
This is allowing the scientific community to do research that was never possible before.
You can hear the songs below
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