Bird Barbs and Insults

By Robert J. Korpella

First posted on 08-12-2011

Those gentle harmonies conducted by birds of similar species may not be so harmonious after all. Researchers in Great Britain say that song sparrows actually trade barbs and fling insults at one another when they share songs.

Janet Lapierre, a leader of the research team, said most scientists accept that a bird’s repertoire size and song complexity are a relection of well they can advertise their quality as an ideal mate. She said that’s not entirely correct. “Song-sharing, where birds sing a smaller number of their species’ greatest hits, is a more aggressive and attention-seeking behavior. It’s also a behavior most often displayed by belligerent older males.”

During the study, Lapierre and her team used acoustic systems to determine why male song sparrows chose certain song stylings.

They discovered that song selection had more to do with individual differences between the birds than commonalities, and that much depended on the sort of sparrow neighborhood the birds lived in. “Tougher” neighborhoods had a much higher percentage of sparrows engaging in aggressive bouts of song-sharing, while those neighborhoods that were more mild mannered seemed populated by conflict-averse sparrows that avoided sharing songs.

It appears that older male sparrows were most likely to boast or seek attention with bouts of song-sharing. This may be related to a greater willingness to risk conflict. The older birds’ experience may have led them to the most effective signals for their area.