Four calling birds...

Do bird's recognise each other's calls?
28 December 2016

Interview with 

Alan Calverd, James Bowers & Hugh Hunt


How good are you at recognising birds by their songs? For our second, third and fourth scientific days of Christmas, Chris Smith asks avian expert Eleanor Drinkwater to put guests Hugh Hunt, James Bowers and Alan Calverd to the test...

Chris - Now Christmas is all about games, so to celebrate these bird-themed days of Christmas, we’re going to play guess the bird call. Have a listen to this...

Chris - Any ideas - four bird calls, so four points up for grabs. Hugh’s up for it go on...

Hugh - I didn’t hear a Kookaburra.

Chris - It’s a good start Hugh. You’re very good given it’s not an English native.

Hugh - You didn’t say they were English natives, did you?

Chris - Well we recorded them in the street. James - what do you reckon then?

James - I don’t know. I thought number four felt a little bit pidgeony and so maybe…

Chris - James gets a hint of pidgeony in there.

Alan - you like eating all these birds, I’m sure, but what do you think about listening to them?

Alan - I think the most obvious is probably the robin which was number one. It’s a good mouthful!

Chris - Okay. Not a very big mouthful though. Eleanor - you’re the bird expert. I’ll play each of them in turn again and you can tell us which one. So this was number one:

Eleanor - That’s a blackbird.

Chris - So Alan was wrong.

Eleanor - I’m sorry.

Chris - He said Robin. Okay number two:

Chris - Partridges - I didn’t get that. Did anyone else get that? Partridges normally make a different noise when they’re running across the fields near me. Really, was that a Partridge?

Eleanor - Yes.

Chris - Okay number three::

Eleanor - So that would be a chicken.

Chris - Okay. No-one got that one. This is the last one:

Now James’ money - he said pigeon-ish.

Eleanor - Pigeon-ish. Well my money would be on dove.

Hugh - Don’t tell me there’s a Christmas theme to this, is there?

Chris - Pigeon; dove, They’re quite similar though, aren’t they? You can tell them apart though because they do sing differently , don’t they. Because I heard a radio programme once and it stuck with me forever more because this person said “pigeons sing with five syllables and doves sing three syllables.”

Eleanor - Well, I haven’t heard that, but I can tell you that the RSPB says that there’s no clear distinction between pigeons and doves. They’re from the same family and what’s more you know the grey flappy things that steal you sandwiches, that we call pigeons, they’re actually the feral version of wild rock doves. So we call them pigeons but, actually, they’re really doves.

Chris - Because the argument this person put forward to me was the doves sing with three syllables and you can think of a bit like they said “a jaded soccer supporter - u... nit... ed, u... nit... ed. And they said pigeons are five and they said “my toes are bleed… ing,  my toes are bleed… ing.”  And actually it does work. I’ve identified many pigeons and doves off the back of that. And I guarantee that meme will stick with everyone! But, why do birds do this? We all take it for granted birds sing, reach out to each other. What are they trying to communicate?

Eleanor - Well, a whole range of different things. some of them are defending their territories, others are telling you how attractive they are. Sometimes they’re actually practicing their songs, and other times they use it for bonding. In fact, when they’re bonding, birds like budgies actually copy each other. Or other ones have sort of gang calls which they have in particular and other groups don’t, like Australian magpies.

Chris - They must be born with a song otherwise you wouldn't be able to say, oh that’s a blackbird or whatever because birds do have similar songs within their species. But what you’re saying is they learn that from other members of their species or they’re born with it and they adapt it?

Eleanor - It’s a bit of nature and nurture. So some parts of the song seem to be quite intrinsic and other parts of the song seem to be learnt, or at least a little bit of practice before they’re ‘top notch.’

Chris - Can birds recognise each other from their songs? So I can tell when one of you is speaking and I can can recognise just from the sound of your voice without looking at you who it is. So, can a bird do that.

Eleanor - Yes. In fact, there was a hilarious experiment done on pedal in which they got a recording on one particular pedal and played his alarm call again, and again, and again to his friends. And, eventually, they stopped reacting to his alarm call. It’s almost like the boyd calling wolf. Yet they’d still react to alarm calls from other individuals. So, yes, they can tell each other apart.

Chris - And this whole business of when penguins, taking a Christmas card analogy -  totally wrong because they’re from the wrong part of the planet of course, South Pole. But they find their young in amongst thousands of individuals when they come back. So how do they do that? Is that from calls or is there a smell, or other things?

Eleanor - Well, I’m not a penguin expert, unfortunately, as much as I’d like to be.

Chris - How dare you turn up on this Christmas edition of the Naked Scientists and not know about penguins.

Eleanor - I’m sorry. But I guess the call would be very important to that.
Chris - Eleanor Drinkwater; thank you!


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