How To Mercilessly Toy With A Songbird's Heart

Illustration for article titled How To Mercilessly Toy With A Songbird's Heart

Do you hate love? Do you hate songbirds? If you answered yes to both of those questions, have we got an experiment for you.


Many biologists have run into a phenomenon called "supernormal stimulus." An animal cues in on some particular trait, meant to represent a quality, and will respond more enthusiastically as the trait becomes more exaggerated, even when the trait is exaggerated at the cost of the quality the animal is supposedly seeking. For example, given a choice between smaller and larger eggs, a goose will choose to spend its energy hatching the larger one, presumably because it will hatch a healthier and larger chick. Substitute in a bigger "egg" of the approximately correct shape and color, and the goose will sit on the larger egg. The egg can be up to the size of a volleyball, and goose will not have a clue.

Birds aren't the only ones who fall for this stuff, but they do seem to be the animals that researchers most like to play tricks on. One group of biologists decided they'd like to see how far supernormal stimuli affected songbirds. Canaries attract their mates with songs, which makes sense because it takes strength and endurance to sing, as well as cunning to outwit one's predators while loudly giving away one's location. But a singer can't have everything, and so male canaries have to make a trade: they can either sing a wide range of notes, from high to low, or they can sing with a trill.

Computers don't have to make the same trade. Researchers pitted a real male canary against a computer that sang through a "wider bandwidth" and with a higher trill rate than any real male songbird could match. They found that "both naive and experienced females" preferred a superfast and superflexible singer, despite the disadvantage of that singer not actually existing. The researchers believe that this could be applicable to all songbirds.

So if you want to become irresistible to a bird, take a recording of what they like and speed it up and stretch it out. If you want to be irresistible to humans, take something they like and exaggerate it until it becomes a grotesque mockery. Odds are, it will work on someone.

[Sources: Directional Female Preference for an Exaggerated Male Trait in Canary Song]

Image: Juan Emilio.



If you want to be irresistible to humans, take something they like and exaggerate it until it becomes a grotesque mockery. Odds are, it will work on someone.

A fact a generation of Photoshop artists working for the fashion industry have made a great deal of money on.

I find it a lot more interesting, at least when out in the garden, not so much to mimic mating calls (some of them, like the chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) or the great tit (Parus major) are very easy to imitate), which gets male birds to waste energy better expended on other things, as to mimic contact calls.

You don't have to be very good at this. A quiet whistle will do - you can listen to examples of long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) or the common house sparrow (Passer domesticus) to get an idea. This tells the birds not only that there are no predators, but that you are not a predator. Predators sneak. An animal making a contact call is not sneaking. I suspect it helps if you conspicuously feed as well - an animal that has just fed probably isn't hunting. Plenty of my own anecdotal evidence (I'm not aware of controlled research) suggests this will make garden birds relax and come closer.

Even more prosocial activity would be to mimic an alarm call (louder and typically higher pitched, - here's the blackbird (Turdus merula) - although a yell and fast movement will do) if you spot the neighbour's cat.