Zebra finches help to shine a light on the social function of bird song

In a paper published today in Current Biology, we have characterised the very social nature of song in the zebra finch, and this helps to highlight the fact that bird song is not always about competition over mates and territories. In the study, led by Hugo Loning, a student in Marc Naguib’s research group in Wageningen University (Netherlands), we have analysed the expression of song over several years and in a variety of contexts. The study is an amalgamation of data collected by remote acoustic recorders every three days at Fowlers Gap for several years, across a lengthy drought, and periods of breeding and no breeding activity. The main finding are that zebra finches sing a lot regardless of the season, or condition of the local environment. Males usually sing in the presence of their female partner (who they are typically paired with for life), and also in close company with other males. We believe that our findings should place a greater emphasis on the social function of birdsong more generally, and that it is a useful signal for the coordination of activity across a population of birds. Our findings are in contrast with the great majority of studies of bird song that emphasise the competitive nature of bird song.

There is a piece written about the work in Macquarie’s Lighthouse magazine which includes some video of singing males.