Birds in New Zealand Developing Entirely New Songs

north island saddleback photo
Photo: angrysunbird / cc

There's an avian music revolution underway on several small islands in New Zealand as a slew of new bird songs seem to have arisen out of nowhere -- but this more diverse music scene isn't necessarily a good thing for the birds themselves. Saddlebacks, birds native to New Zealand's North Island, seem to have developed various regional 'accents' over the last 50 years after humans relocated the species to aid in their preservation. There's just one problem with the birds' eclectic new song catalog -- now they're having a hard time understanding each other.While a bit of added variety to the saddleback's songs might not seem like such a problem, it turns out that it may actually throw a wrench in the bird's genetic diversity. Evidence suggests that these local dialects, which developed as a result of groups of birds being isolated for their preservation, may be unrecognizable to members of other groups -- making an otherwise appealing courtship melody sound like an unbecoming jumble.

A report from Voxy offers more details on the birdsong research:

The phenomenon is an avian equivalent of the way human language develops regional accents and dialects as people migrate and settle in new locations, and provides fresh insights into how species evolve, says biology researcher Dr Kevin Parker, from the Institute of Natural Sciences at Albany.

He made 2700 recordings of male saddlebacks' rhythmical song on 13 islands off the coast of the North Island where the bird is found, for his doctoral thesis. When he compared them, he found only 30 per cent of the 202 different songs are shared between islands, with 70 per cent restricted to just a single island.

In an attempt to boost the saddleback population in New Zealand, conservation officials moved the birds from threatened areas to small island refuges -- doing so, however, may have created cultural bottlenecks wherein bird songs could evolve with entirely new melodies. Unfortunately, when Dr. Parker played recordings of songs from one island's birds to those of another, the other group wasn't so impressed.

"In humans, love overcomes language barriers, but in many bird species if you sing the wrong song, you are out on your own," says the researcher.

Perhaps surprisingly, the micro-evolution of bird language mirrors a similar process by which early human languages became distinct -- "a bit like the development of Polynesian languages in the Pacific or the Romantic languages in Europe, a reflection of patterns of human colonisation," Dr. Parker tells Voxy.

There's no telling yet what effect this will all have on the long-term success of saddlebacks in New Zealand, but does demonstrate a rather remarkable flexibility and musical range, if not a keen boldness of spirit to sing a different tune. And, while musical tastes are often slow to change, let's just hope the new tunes can catch on in saddleback circles.

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