Duke's Steve Nowicki finds out what songbirds have to say

CorrespondentFebruary 3, 2013 

  • A day for Darwin Steve Nowicki will speak on “What Bird Songs & Bird Beaks Can Tell Us About Evolution,” a presentation for Darwin Day, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12 at the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s Education Center in Chapel Hill, off Old Mason Farm Road. The event is free to attend, but registration is needed for attendance planning. Details/registration: www.ncbg.unc.edu/lectures. The event honors British naturalist Charles Darwin, born Feb. 12, 1809 – the same day as Abraham Lincoln. Darwin is best known for proposing the theory of natural selection, which holds that plant and animal species evolved over time due to their struggle for life. Darwin died April 19, 1882. The website for the International Darwin Day Foundation ( www.darwinday.org) lists Darwin Day events scheduled around the world.

Deep in a North Carolina marsh, a lone swamp sparrow sits on his perch in the middle of the water. He’s singing his usual song. But he’s also aggressively flapping one wing, trying to incite a nearby male into action. Onlookers are watching – just to see what happens.

However, this is no ordinary territorial scuffle. This is bird research. The sparrow on the perch is a robot, and the chief, hip wader-clad onlooker – who is also in control of the robot’s movements – is Steve Nowicki, Ph.D., a biology, psychology, and neurobiology professor at Duke University. He’s testing whether the wing flap will actually prompt a fight.

According to Nowicki, birdsong and signaling have a surprisingly close relationship with human speech.

“It’s an unexpected and remarkable model for human speech control, development and perception,” he said. “Birds also learn their songs in much the same way humans learn to speak, and that’s an unusual trait. They have to learn their language from their parents.”

His research, though, isn’t about merely studying how birds behave and communicate. He and his team watch signals and behaviors; they run simulations and analyze hormones; they record neurons and assemble protein sets. They’re deciphering how birds promote their survival and reproductive success. In short – they’re studying evolution, past and present.

Why birds?

Nowicki, who is also dean and vice provost of undergraduate education, was almost the bird researcher who wasn’t. As a student at Tufts University in Boston, he was a declared music major. Late in his collegiate career, he discovered a love of biology – particularly the brain and behavior – and raced to complete a major in the subject. He then pursued his graduate degree in neurobiology at Cornell University.

It was there he was first introduced to the siren song of birds. When it comes to communicating, birds have far less to say than humans. But they express themselves in equally complex ways, Nowicki said.

“Humans use complicated signal communication, and we use an array of sounds to create words that have rich meanings,” he said. “When you look at sparrow songs – the number of notes per second and the frequency – it’s just as complicated as human speech. They’re just not saying much.”

All the same, they’re getting their points across.

Songs, signals

In addition to the aggressive response the swamp sparrow’s wing flap provokes, the absence or introduction of song or even a physical attribute can prompt birds to behave differently, Nowicki said.

Birds, like most animals, are territorial and will, in most cases, defend their turf. But how will neighboring birds respond if a battle ensues? Will they come to help or avoid the fight? Will they treat the male differently if he loses to the interloper? Researchers can test this reaction, Nowicki said, by removing a bird from its environment, playing a recording of another male’s song, and, then, reintroducing the bird to see how the others respond.

“It’s interesting to see what happens, because no one wants a floating male in the neighborhood,” he said. “Research has shown that with some birds, peer birds are more wary of the winner, but they might also try to encroach on a loser’s territory.”

And, just as with other species, birds can use their physical attributes to signal to and communicate with each other. For example, a trait, such as a bright red neck and throat commonly seen in the male house finch, can broadcast a bird’s prowess or superior qualities. The red-throated male finch does attract more females, Nowicki said, but it isn’t because of the color. The pigment comes from a carotenoid-rich diet that gives these males a stronger immune system, making them better mates.

Male song sparrows use their song repertoire in much the same way. The more songs they learn and exhibit, the more attractive they are to females. The reason, Nowicki said, is that birds with larger song selections appear to be smarter. They simply learn songs faster.

“Males who sing better have better developed brains, and in theory that makes them better mates,” he said. “We’re still working out why having a better brain for learning song is better for the female, but it’s clear females prefer these males as their mates.”

Impact on human activity

Understanding the role and importance of birdsong and signaling doesn’t shed much light on the evolution of human communication, but knowing what songs and signals mean to birds can directly affect human choices and behavior.

For example, researchers have evidence that stress directly affects a bird’s ability to develop song, which can ultimately impact pair bonding and mating. If scientists study the way birds living in both polluted and pristine environments sing, the data could play a role in accurately evaluating ecosystem health.

This knowledge can also impact wildlife preservation efforts. It isn’t enough to allocate a certain amount of space to a population based only on the number of animals surveyed. There are often other factors at work, Nowicki said. In the case of the small warbler ovenbird, it’s important to know that females won’t be setting in an area with fewer than 10 males. This type of information can significantly alter conservation efforts, he said.

Regardless of how the research of birdsong is used, Nowicki said, his work constantly reminds him of how intertwined birds and music are with our surroundings.

“I keep coming back to birdsong not simply because it’s a good model,” Nowicki said. “When I wake up in the morning and hear birds singing, it’s part of the wonderful aesthetic world we live in, and my job to learn more about it is a privilege.”


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