Birds Why mock mockingbirds

Peasant songs in bullfinches

And this is my favorite quote from Hoover:

The story of Hoover, a seal from the Maine shores that ended up in the Boston Aquarium, told by Tecumseh Fitch, a biologist at Harvard University:

Hoover was an orphaned seal whose mother died when he was a baby. Fishermen took him in and raised him for a few months. And when it got too big, ate too much, and started messing up the house, the fishermen gave it to the Boston Aquarium. And three years later, when he was sexually mature, he started making sounds very similar to human speech. And the people who heard that couldn't believe it and thought they were crazy. But it soon became clear that Hoover was imitating the exact language of the Maine fishermen where he was raised. And especially this 'hey, you get out of there, get over here' not only mimics English, but a particular English dialect. And to New England residents, Hoover not only sounds like someone who speaks English, but just like a Maine fisherman.

Amazingly but true, for all we know, only very few of all living beings learn to use and differentiate their voices up to song and language: seals, dolphins, whales, humans - and birds. An amazing species association. And singing and speaking is learned through vocal imitation, through voice imitation.

For example the mocking bird, one of the many species of mockingbirds native to North and South America. They are considered to be the greatest imitation artists among birds. In the following one always hears the original vocals first and then the imitation of the Mocking Bird:

So that was a catbird. Here is a very famous marsh bird called the Redwing Blackbird. ... Here's a Carolina Wren, kind of a wren. ... So this is an American Kingfisher, a Kingfisher ... And here is a hawk, a big hawk. You can already hear that the mocking bird is not as big and not as strong as the hawk. But he tries well .... so here's an American woodpecker Here is a blue jay.

A kind of jay. Seven of 80 bird species that bio-acoustician Fitch identified in the song of the Mocking Bird. Here 15 more bird calls. Again, the original vocals can be heard first and then the Mocking Bird imitation:

You can hear a mocking bird, especially in mid-spring, when it is so enthusiastic, it is an infinite river, the song has it all. So now I'm playing a piece of Mocking Bird

So what's important, you can hear this pattern. Usually it repeats itself three or four times. And this is very important because one can ask: how can a female mocking bird find a male when she is doing such good mimicry? How does she actually know this is a mocking bird?

With a few exceptions, only songbirds learn through imitation. Most other birds' sounds are innate and hardly varied. Usually only the songbird males sing, especially in the spring in search of females, for the recognition of the species and the defense of the territory. - About two thirds of the mocking bird singing consists of its own and one third of the singing parts of other bird species, which are imitated, sometimes very precisely and sometimes modulated. It is true that all male mockingbirds imitate other species, but, as Tecumseh Fitch found out, each one, through its very own repetitive pattern, in its own individual, and therefore identifiable, way other types of birds after all imaginable sounds, also other animals, even the noises of technical devices:

So now, I'll be a couple, these are crickets. ... and this is a very good imitation of a little frog; this one is called the greenhouse frog, they are very small and it sounds exactly like this one.

Can you hear it? That, I think ... it's just like a train whistle and there are just weird noises like this ... and I don't know if he heard any electronic device or if he did it himself or what , We do not know that.

What mocking birds are in North and South America, the mock warbler is in Central and Eastern Europe.

That was a short excerpt from the singing of the Marsh Warbler. And the really big question with these birds is whether they can still produce their own tones at all, or whether the song is not created purely by imitating other species.

If you follow these marsh warblers now, you can hear a blackbird, a piece of a blackbird ..., there a piece of a sparrow ..., there a barn swallow ..., there a blue tit ... and there a skylark ..., and there a star ..., with the star again having the problem that he can incorporate everything into his song himself, for example singing a construction site.

If you listen to this marsh warbler, you can hear parts of the song of the house sparrow and the nightingale. Here are the imitated vocal excerpts individually:

And here the yellow mocker, not by chance also called 'language master' by ornithologists. Immediately after the marsh warbler, it takes number 2 among European songbirds:

And two of the bird species imitated in the song of yellow mockers individually, first the blackbird and then the barn swallow.

According to the Berlin behavioral biologist and science journalist Cord Riechelmann, six different species of birds can be heard in the full song of this swamp reed singer. And if you listen carefully to a starling who is imitating construction site noises, you can easily hear concrete mixer noises or the scraping of shovels on concrete.

In this marsh warbler singing, parts of the singing can be made out that come from a distance of several thousand kilometers.

There is a general thought that songbirds that migrate to Africa also sing there, even if there are no loud territorial chants, and that they hear the chants of other species through it. And then a European bird could have picked up sounds from others in Africa and brought them here.

Especially in spring, when the migratory birds among the songbirds have just returned from Africa, you can hear African voices singing our native birds: world music in birdsong! - But there are exceptions to the rule that songbirds, and only songbirds, learn sound articulation, adds the Berlin behavioral biologist Riechelmann:

When talking about learning, one must of course always not forget that there are certain sounds that are of course also innate and can be similar across species, for example warning calls, certain startle, escape or escape sounds, and that of course not all birds learn, so there are two large groups, the songbirds and the non-singing birds. And there is also learning among non-singing birds, the most famous group being parrots and the cockatoos.

Begging calls from young birds of all bird species are basically innate. - Ornithological Kaspar Hauser experiments with songbirds also prove that songbirds learn their songs: immediately after hatching, they are reared in soundproof chambers, with the result that the adult birds then cannot sing at all or can only sing very rudimentary.

How birds learn to sing by imitating the sounds of their surroundings has been carefully researched. The young birds in the nest begin with poorly articulated sounds, for example when they beg for food:

In addition to the innate begging sounds, the first singing sounds are gradually learned.

Birds, when they have reached a certain age, start making notes, I don't even know how to describe them, but they call it 'subsong'. They differ from the real song simply in that they are less structured, for example they have no pauses in the right places and they don't hit the notes as precisely yet, and you can prove on the sonargram that it is the rudiments of the notes sung are.

It takes weeks, sometimes months, until the poorly articulated sub-song of the young birds becomes the differentiated song of the adult bird.

There is an American scientist, Ofar Schenokovsky in New York, and he has a system now where he can go from the first utterance of a bird, your whole story, for so three months, he records everything and then can go back and look like that, Just like the end song, this crystallized song evolved from this completely unstructured sound to a nicely structured song.

Such sound development is only possible because the associated motor skills, such as those of the tongue or the larynx, also differentiate. The young birds 'early sound impressions from their parents' song are stored in long-term memory. The Hoover seal must have memorized the language of the Maine fishermen, which he only began to articulate in the Boston Aquarium three years after his time with the fishermen. And here is another, amazing example - from the bird world of southern Germany, which is currently being thoroughly researched:

With their bright rust-red / rose-red under-, their blue-gray top, jet black head cap and their black tail and wing covers with white spots, the males belong to the most beautiful European songbirds, bullfinches or bullfinches, Pyrrhula pyrrhula. Her singing sounds sadly melancholy, the soft, gently whistled 'dü' and the muffled mixture of chirping and creaking tones. And here bullfinches from near Freiburg im Breisgau:

Bullfinches singing folk songs! Until recently they could be heard on the slopes of the Black Forest near Freiburg. There it was customary to catch bullfinches or raise them as soon as they hatch and sing folk songs to them. And it was bullfinches that handed down these folk songs from bullfinch generation to bullfinch generation for decades, songs that were no longer sung by the population, says the Berlin ornithologist Riechelmann.

With these bullfinches, which were briefly heard here, it is actually the case that they were taken out of their nest in their youth and then folk songs were played to them, i.e. they did not hear their own singing. The fact that they can still attract females with this singing and can also raise young ones simply indicates in this case that the species recognition does not work directly via the sound that is clear to us, but via other mechanisms that are somehow also part of the singing.

Learning to sing with songbirds and human language acquisition are astonishingly similar, Tecumseh Fitch found in his research:

These are the first baby sounds, the very first level of speaking; they are probably innate original sounds that also exist in deaf children, just as crying and wine sounds are innate.

This is babbling with doubling, the first steps in imitation learning that the baby learns through self-imitation; and the next level is called 'canonical babble':

Here there are already sound sequences that are picked up by the language environment.

But maybe a note about babbling. Jürgen Weisenborn, linguist in Potsdam, who is also working on the German language study, was able to show that children from the 4th or 5th month in France babble differently than here, that elements of the French intonation can be found in babble.

And evidently sustained changes in the sound environment have lasting effects on the sound articulation of living beings that learn through voice imitation. For example, it has been found that orca or humpback whales call or sing very differently today than they did in the 60s: And a recording from the 90s from Hawaii: Sounds as if it were in place of the more harmonious blues and rock sounds from before thirty, forty years ago in the last few years unmelodic whale chants, something like grunge music or rap.

Yes, you have to ask what other humpback whales believe. Maybe they think that now it's very nice, very exciting, and that old 60s music was a bit boring, kind of. I have to say that this old style was very nice, to human ears it was so more clear or more tonal. What is important is that there is a difference, a very clear difference between these whale songs from the 60s and now, i.e. there is a cultural evolution. Whether it's better or worse is another question. But that there is this development, that is very important.

In the case of humpback whales, it can also be related to the fact that the sea has become more noisy and that you have to occupy other frequencies in order to get through there. And there are also reverse theories that say, for example, that the song of the blackbird, which people perceive to be extremely harmonious, is related to the fact that they came to the cities because they had it in the forests in which they used to live not necessary, and that would be a reverse development. It doesn't matter whether it's nicer or uglier. It is simply a matter of the fact that most of the animals mentioned here that produce sounds naturally do not do so regardless of the environment in which they live.

It could be, according to Cord Riechelmann, who has just written a book about birds in the city, that blackbirds have not adapted to the city noise by imitation, but have developed their harmonious, piercing song against the cacophony of the city!

Just as we now know the phenomena of imitation learning in song and language, we know when and in which sequences voice articulation is learned, the neurology of this learning was largely unknown until a few years ago. Until, according to Tecumseh Fitch, the bio-acoustician from Harvard, research on canaries by the New York neurologist Fernando Nottebohm, who comes from ornithology, led to findings that revolutionized neurology.

Fernando Nottebohm started with canaries, and these are a bird that always learns a new song every year. And he asked why the canary learns this and other bird to sing once and then sings the same song for life. Why did he ask. And he found: every year before the mating season they get new brain cells. This is a very, very important discovery in neuroscience, and that's exactly because Folks studied the bird song.

This is a revolutionary finding because up until now it has been certain in neurology that the brain of all vertebrates is developed shortly after birth and that new brain cells cannot develop. Cord Riechelmann:

For all diseases, as a result of which parts of the human brain degenerate, it is more than important, one could say groundbreaking, that this mechanism has been found in canaries that they perish every autumn and then grow again. This not only overturned neuroscientific dogmas, but also opened up incredible perspectives, especially for medical research that has to do with symptoms of degeneration in the brain. And what is really important here is that birds have opened up perspectives on access to the human brain in this context, which monkeys, especially great apes, by far beat. For example, Henrike Hulsch has found mechanisms in nightingales for the storage capacity of what is heard and reproduced, which are very, very similar to that of humans.

Bird song research at the forefront of research. - Because of the sparrow or bird brain!

The question remains, for what purpose there is vocal imitation learning in nature and why among all living beings only and especially with the 5 species mentioned at the beginning: birds, dolphins, seals, whales and humans?

I would say that's just a big question for scientists. There is something that everyone has together. That in most of whales, seals and birds, it is only the males that sing and they sing when they are sexually mature and more or less they sing for the females and against the other males, so this is territoriality and also this mate choice maybe a connection, but humans are an exception to that. Another point that I find not entirely unimportant, with animals that live in large groups, such as rooks, cockatoos, with a very important aspect that all look the same on the outside, are simply colored, crows are black, cockatoos, i.e. certain cockatoo shapes, know that you notice the phenomenon that they are actually never calm and that there is a crucial point: something like the coordination of the whole association.

And, adds the Berlin behavioral biologist Riechelmann, vocal learning through imitation enables a much larger vocal and articulation repertoire than if the sounds were determined by heredity.In addition, there are three main hypotheses in behavioral-biological research: the boredom hypothesis: songbirds imitate other species and sounds so that the female is not bored and stays with the varied singing male for a long time; the beau gesture hypothesis, so named after a hero from western history, who had to fight alone against a great overwhelming power and with a trick faked fellow combatants he did not have - so the beau gesture hypothesis: the male pretends to be many different birds there, thus preventing rival males from entering the territory of this male. And in the third hypothesis, the password hypothesis, the imitated sounds indicate belonging to a certain group. This hypothesis could provide an indication of the evolution of the unusually large biodiversity of songbirds around the world:

I find the password hypothesis very, very meaningful because it also describes the so-called radiation of songbirds - that is, songbirds are an incredibly large group with an incredible number of species. And that a song that has something like plasticity, namely the freedom that it can vary from generation to generation, from area to area through the learning process, is a very beautiful and functional motor for species development. I.e. one can split off through movement through tones; So not only does it create group membership, it can also create new ones and that can be the first path to speciation.

Learning by imitation is a motor for evolution in the bird world, explains Cord Riechelmann, - but it is also something that bird lovers can simply enjoy, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example.

At least two of his works testify that Mozart particularly valued the musical interplay between people and birds.

According to a note in Mozart's edition book, he bought a star on May 27, 1784. He could whistle the theme of the 3rd movement of his piano concerto in G major. While he was composing while sitting at the piano, the star in the cage next to him on the wall cheerfully modulates the theme. "Was that nice!" wrote Mozart on his sheet of music. He recognized the musical quality of the starling variation and adopted it in the last movement. - And another document of the love of Wolfgang Amadeus for his star.

Three years later, on the anniversary of his star's death, Mozart composed funeral music especially for his musical pet.