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Concept: Songbird


Many studies have shown how pigments and internal nanostructures generate color in nature. External surface structures can also influence appearance, such as by causing multiple scattering of light (structural absorption) to produce a velvety, super black appearance. Here we show that feathers from five species of birds of paradise (Aves: Paradisaeidae) structurally absorb incident light to produce extremely low-reflectance, super black plumages. Directional reflectance of these feathers (0.05-0.31%) approaches that of man-made ultra-absorbent materials. SEM, nano-CT, and ray-tracing simulations show that super black feathers have titled arrays of highly modified barbules, which cause more multiple scattering, resulting in more structural absorption, than normal black feathers. Super black feathers have an extreme directional reflectance bias and appear darkest when viewed from the distal direction. We hypothesize that structurally absorbing, super black plumage evolved through sensory bias to enhance the perceived brilliance of adjacent color patches during courtship display.

Concepts: Structure, Bird, Songbird, Rayleigh scattering, Feather, Passerine, Plumage, Bird-of-paradise


BACKGROUND: Like human infants, songbirds learn their species-specific vocalizations through imitation learning. The birdsong system has emerged as a widely used experimental animal model for understanding the underlying neural mechanisms responsible for vocal production learning. However, how neural impulses are translated into precise motor behavior of the complex vocal organ (syrinx) to create song is poorly understood. First and foremost, we lack a detailed understanding of syringeal morphology. RESULTS: To fill this gap we combined non-invasive (high-field magnetic resonance imaging and micro-computed tomography) and invasive techniques (histology and micro-dissection) to construct the annotated high-resolution three-dimensional (3D) dataset, or morphome, of the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) syrinx. We identified and annotated syringeal cartilage, bone, and musculature in situ in unprecedented detail. e provide interactive 3D models that greatly improve the communication of complex morphological data and of our understanding of syringeal function in general. CONCLUSIONS: Our results show that the syringeal skeleton is optimized for low weight driven by physiological constraints on song production. The present refinement of muscle organization and identity elucidates how apposed muscles actuate different syringeal elements. Our dataset allows for more precise predictions about muscle co-activation and synergies and has important implications for muscle activity and stimulation experiments. We also demonstrate how the syrinx can be stabilized during song to reduce mechanical noise and, as such, enhance repetitive execution of stereotypic motor patterns. In addition, we identify a cartilaginous structure suited to play a crucial role in the uncoupling of sound frequency and amplitude control, which permits a novel explanation to the evolutionary success of songbirds.

Concepts: Heart, Muscle, Magnetic resonance imaging, Taeniopygia, Zebra Finch, Sound, Connective tissue, Songbird


Over decades it has been unclear how individual migratory songbirds cross large ecological barriers such as seas or deserts. By deploying light-level geolocators on four songbird species weighing only about 12 g, we found that these otherwise mainly nocturnal migrants seem to regularly extend their nocturnal flights into the day when crossing the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. The proportion of the proposed diurnally flying birds gradually declined over the day with similar landing patterns in autumn and spring. The prolonged flights were slightly more frequent in spring than in autumn, suggesting tighter migratory schedules when returning to breeding sites. Often we found several patterns for barrier crossing for the same individual in autumn compared to the spring journey. As only a small proportion of the birds flew strictly during the night and even some individuals might have flown non-stop, we suggest that prolonged endurance flights are not an exception even in small migratory species. We emphasise an individual’s ability to perform both diurnal and nocturnal migration when facing the challenge of crossing a large ecological barrier to successfully complete a migratory journey.

Concepts: Sahara, Mediterranean Sea, Bird, Tunisia, Songbird, Algeria, Morocco, Libya


Long-distance migratory organisms are under strong selection to migrate quickly. Stopovers demand more time than flying and are used by individuals to refuel during migration, but the effect of fuel loads (fat) acquired at stopover sites on the subsequent pace of migration has not been quantified. We studied stopover behaviour of Grey-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus) at a site in northern Colombia and then tracked their migration using an intercontinental radio-telemetry array. Tracking confirmed long-distance flights of more than 3000 km, highlighting the key importance of a single stopover site to the migration strategy of this species. Our results suggest that these songbirds behave as time-minimizers as predicted by optimal migration theory, and that fuel loads acquired at this South American stopover site, together with departure date, carry-over to influence the pace of migration, contributing to differences in travel time of up to 30 days in birds subsequently detected in the U. S. and Canada. Such variation in the pace of migration arising from a single stopover site, likely has important fitness consequences and suggests that identifying important fuelling sites will be essential to effectively conserve migratory species.

Concepts: Gene, Bird, Songbird, Bird migration, Catharus, Veery, Catharus thrushes, Grey-cheeked Thrush


Every year, billions of wild diurnal songbirds migrate at night. To do so, they shift their daily rhythm from diurnality to nocturnality. In captivity this is observed as a gradual transition of daytime activity developing into nocturnal activity, but how wild birds prepare their daily rhythms for migration remains largely unknown. Using an automated radio-telemetry system, we compared activity patterns of free-living migrant and resident European blackbirds (Turdus merula) in a partially migratory population during the pre-migratory season. We found that activity patterns between migrant and resident birds did not differ during day and night. Migrants did not change their daily rhythm in a progressive manner as has been observed in captivity, but instead abruptly became active during the night of departure. The rapid shift in rhythmicity might be more common across migratory songbird species, but may not have been observed before in wild animals due to a lack of technology.

Concepts: Bird, Immigration, Human migration, Songbird, Diurnality, Bird migration, Common Blackbird, Nocturnality


Interacting with nature is widely recognised as providing many health and well-being benefits. As people live increasingly urbanised lifestyles, the provision of food for garden birds may create a vital link for connecting people to nature and enabling them to access these benefits. However, it is not clear which factors determine the pleasure that people receive from watching birds at their feeders. These may be dependent on the species that are present, the abundance of individuals and the species richness of birds around the feeders. We quantitatively surveyed urban households from towns in southern England to determine the factors that influence the likeability of 14 common garden bird species, and to assess whether people prefer to see a greater abundance of individuals or increased species richness at their feeders. There was substantial variation in likeability across species, with songbirds being preferred over non-songbirds. Species likeability increased for people who fed birds regularly and who could name the species. We found a strong correlation between the number of species that a person could correctly identify and how connected to nature they felt when they watched garden birds. Species richness was preferred over a greater number of individuals of the same species. Although we do not show causation this study suggests that it is possible to increase the well-being benefits that people gain from watching birds at their feeders. This could be done first through a human to bird approach by encouraging regular interactions between people and their garden birds, such as through learning the species names and providing food. Second, it could be achieved through a bird to human approach by increasing garden songbird diversity because the pleasure that a person receives from watching an individual bird at a feeder is dependent not only on its species but also on the diversity of birds at the feeder.

Concepts: Human, Conservation biology, Evolution, Species, Person, Bird, Songbird, Finch


Songbirds (oscine passerines) are the most species-rich and cosmopolitan bird group, comprising almost half of global avian diversity. Songbirds originated in Australia, but the evolutionary trajectory from a single species in an isolated continent to worldwide proliferation is poorly understood. Here, we combine the first comprehensive genome-scale DNA sequence data set for songbirds, fossil-based time calibrations, and geologically informed biogeographic reconstructions to provide a well-supported evolutionary hypothesis for the group. We show that songbird diversification began in the Oligocene, but accelerated in the early Miocene, at approximately half the age of most previous estimates. This burst of diversification occurred coincident with extensive island formation in Wallacea, which provided the first dispersal corridor out of Australia, and resulted in independent waves of songbird expansion through Asia to the rest of the globe. Our results reconcile songbird evolution with Earth history and link a major radiation of terrestrial biodiversity to early diversification within an isolated Australian continent.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Evolution, Earth, Bird, Australia, Songbird, Biogeography


Artificial night lighting is expanding globally, but its ecological consequences remain little understood. Animals often use changes in day length as a cue to time seasonal behaviour. Artificial night lighting may influence the perception of day length, and may thus affect both circadian and circannual rhythms. Over a 3.5 month period, from winter to breeding, we recorded daily singing activity of six common songbird species in 12 woodland sites, half of which were affected by street lighting. We previously reported on analyses suggesting that artificial night lighting affects the daily timing of singing in five species. The main aim of this study was to investigate whether the presence of artificial night lighting is also associated with the seasonal occurrence of dawn and dusk singing. We found that in four species dawn and dusk singing developed earlier in the year at sites exposed to light pollution. We also examined the effects of weather conditions and found that rain and low temperatures negatively affected the occurrence of dawn and dusk singing. Our results support the hypothesis that artificial night lighting alters natural seasonal rhythms, independently of other effects of urbanization. The fitness consequences of the observed changes in seasonal timing of behaviour remain unknown.

Concepts: Scientific method, Effect, Affect, Lighting, Songbird, Light pollution


Biological predispositions in vocal learning have been proposed to underlie commonalities in vocal sequences, including for speech and birdsong, but cultural propagation could also account for such commonalities [1-4]. Songbirds such as the zebra finch learn the sequencing of their acoustic elements (“syllables”) during development [5-8]. Zebra finches are not constrained to learn a specific sequence of syllables, but significant consistencies in the positioning and sequencing of syllables have been observed between individuals within populations and between populations [8-10]. To reveal biological predispositions in vocal sequence learning, we individually tutored juvenile zebra finches with randomized and unbiased sequences of syllables and analyzed the extent to which birds produced common sequences. In support of biological predispositions, birds tutored with randomized sequences produced songs with striking similarities. Birds preferentially started and ended their song sequence with particular syllables, consistently positioned shorter and higher frequency syllables in the middle of their song, and sequenced their syllables such that pitch alternated across adjacent syllables. These patterns are reminiscent of those observed in normally tutored birds, suggesting that birds “creolize” aberrant sequence inputs to produce normal sequence outputs. Similar patterns were also observed for syllables that were not used for tutoring (i.e., unlearned syllables), suggesting that motor biases could contribute to sequence learning biases. Furthermore, zebra finches spontaneously produced acoustic patterns that are commonly observed in speech and music, suggesting that sensorimotor processes that are shared across a wide range of vertebrates could underlie these patterns in humans.

Concepts: Species, Biotechnology, Bird, Sequence, Learning, Songbird, Sequence learning, Finch


As in human infant speech development, vocal imitation in songbirds involves sensory acquisition and memorization of adult-produced vocal signals, followed by a protracted phase of vocal motor practice. The internal model of adult tutor song in the juvenile male brain, termed ‘the template’, is central to the vocal imitation process. However, even the most fundamental aspects of the template, such as when, where and how it is encoded in the brain, remain poorly understood. A major impediment to progress is that current studies of songbird vocal learning use protracted tutoring over days, weeks or months, complicating dissection of the template encoding process. Here, we take the key step of tightly constraining the timing of template acquisition. We show that, in the zebra finch, template encoding can be time locked to, on average, a 2 h period of juvenile life and based on just 75 s of cumulative tutor song exposure. Crucially, we find that vocal changes occurring on the day of training correlate with eventual imitative success. This paradigm will lead to insights on how the template is instantiated in the songbird brain, with general implications for deciphering how internal models are formed to guide learning of complex social behaviours.

Concepts: Psychology, Motor control, Learning, Knowledge, Songbird, Vocal music, Finch