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Sweet Sparrow Songs May Actually Be Shouting Matches

Last Updated: August 28, 2011.

Older male birds most likely to engage in aggressive song-sharing bouts, study shows.

SUNDAY, Aug. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Although it may sound sweet and friendly, song-sharing among sparrows is actually a hostile behavior, similar to arguing or slinging insults, Canadian scientists have found.

The study from researchers at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, also revealed that differences among the birds, such as age and where they live, play a role in how aggressive their shouting matches become.

"It's been hypothesized that repertoire size and song complexity is about the singer's ability to advertise their quality as a mate," study lead author, Janet Lapierre, a visiting biologist from the University of Western Ontario, said in a Queens University news release. "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."

Using a 16-channel acoustic location system, the researchers found aggressive song-sharing typically happens in "tough" sparrow neighborhoods, while more peaceful sparrows tend to reside in more "mild-mannered" areas.

Additionally, the study showed that the birds most likely to take part in hostile song-sharing rituals were older male sparrows. These may be the birds with more experience in song-sharing behavior, and they may be more willing and able to risk conflict, the researchers suggested.

"The novelty of this study was that we looked at how birds use songs rather than just examining the content of their repertoires," explained Beth MacDougall-Shackleton, biology professor at the University of Western Ontario, in the news release. "We really could not have done this research without the longstanding study population of song sparrows at the Queens University Biological Station."

These findings were released online in advance of publication in an upcoming print issue of the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

More information

The U.S. National Audubon Society provides more information on how to identify bird songs.

SOURCE: Queens University, news release, August 2011

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