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Some Male Birds Improve Their Songs When Faced With Competition

People who breed canaries, shama thrushes and other noted songsters often comment that housing males within hearing distance of one another improves the quality of their songs. This theory has now been validated by researchers studying song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) at the University of Miami.

Typical and Improved Songs

It seems that male song sparrows stick to their “usual” repertoire under normal circumstances – i.e. when calling to announce the ownership of their territory. However, when challenged by intruding males, song sparrows dramatically improve the quality of their songs, selecting note ranges and song speeds that are difficult to perform.

Whether this is to convince a female or male (or both) of the singer’s vigor has not yet been established, but clearly the birds are physically changing their songs in response to a hostile situation. This finding contradicts the long-held assumption that, once acquired, male birds’ song patterns are largely static.

Practical Applications

The song sparrow findings may eventually shed light on the acquisition of language in people, as similar brain pathways seem involved. Those of you who keep groups of canaries, green singing finches or other songbirds may wish to experiment a bit as well, to see if some competition spurs your pets to new musical heights.

Thoughts on the Song Sparrow

As for myself, the first time I hear a song sparrow call (whether the song is “improved” or not!) each late winter is a thrill, assuring me that warmer days are not far off. In years past, I heard these little fellows only near salt marshes, but am happy to report that they have now expanded into suburban yards and city parks in and near NYC.

Further Reading

You can hear a song sparrow’s call and read related field observations at


Please also see my article The Role of Learning and Instinct in Bird Song for more information on this and related topics.


Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by Factumquintus

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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