Stress in early life has a lasting impact on male birds' song

November 14, 2018, Public Library of Science
White-throated dipper holding food in its mouth. Credit: Andrew Mawby, 2008

Male songbirds that had better early life conditions as nestlings sing more often and produce more complex songs as adults, according to a study by Lucy Magoolagan from Lancaster University, publishing November 14 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

Female songbirds are thought to judge a male's quality based on his skill at singing. The brain's system develops during the and fledgling period, so stress during this time, such as a lack food, might impair an adult's singing prowess—an idea known as the "developmental stress hypothesis". To test this hypothesis, the researchers monitored 18 nestlings in a long-term study population of wild white-throated dippers (Cinclus cinclus) living around the River Lune in Cumbria. They recorded brood size, the number of feeding visits by the parents and measured the nestlings' condition at 9 days old, and then returned to record the birds' song as adults.

They found that dippers that were healthier at 9 days old sang songs with more unique 'syllables' as adults, a measure of their singing repertoire. Nestlings that were fed more frequently also sang more often in adulthood. This is the first evidence from wild populations that food limitations during can influence song frequency and singing repertoire in adult birds, and supports previous experimental studies on captive European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), swamp sparrows (Melospiza georgiana), and song sparrows (Melospiza melodia).

White-throated dipper perching. Credit: Andrew Mawby, 2008

The next step will be to investigate the physiological mechanisms that link stressors in early life with the quantity and quality of bird song in adults.

Magoolagan adds: " Song complexity and singing frequency in male birds are shaped by female choice; they signal male quality because song is costly to develop and produce. The timing of song learning and development of the brain structures involved occur at a time nestlings are exposed to a number of potential stressors. Our results provide some of the first evidence from a wild bird of how the conditions experience during early life impact adult song."

White-throated dipper feeding at the nest. Credit: Andrew Mawby, 2008

Explore further: Pupil's brain recognizes the perfect teacher

More information: Magoolagan L, Mawby PJ, Whitehead FA, Sharp SP (2018) The effect of early life conditions on song traits in male dippers (Cinclus cinclus). PLoS ONE 13(11): e0205101. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205101

Related Stories

Pupil's brain recognizes the perfect teacher

October 17, 2018

Youngsters learn many important behaviors by imitating adults. But young learners are selective in who they copy, and scientists don't understand how they choose the right teacher.

Scientists remind their peers: Female birds sing, too

March 14, 2018

When North American ornithologists hear a bird singing, they're likely to assume it's a male. But in many species, the females sing too—and a new commentary in The Auk: Ornithological Advances argues that a better understanding ...

Creating a (synthetic) song from a zebra finch's muscle

July 31, 2018

Birds create songs by moving muscles in their vocal organs to vibrate air passing through their tissues. While previous research reported that each of the different muscles controls one acoustic feature, new research shows ...

Do smart songbirds always get the girl?

April 3, 2017

If the early bird catches the worm, then does the smart songbird get the girl? That's what a researcher at Florida Atlantic University and collaborators from the University of Miami, Duke University, and the College of Charleston ...

Recommended for you

Scientists ID another possible threat to orcas: pink salmon

January 19, 2019

Over the years, scientists have identified dams, pollution and vessel noise as causes of the troubling decline of the Pacific Northwest's resident killer whales. Now, they may have found a new and more surprising culprit: ...

Researchers come face to face with huge great white shark

January 18, 2019

Two shark researchers who came face to face with what could be one of the largest great whites ever recorded are using their encounter as an opportunity to push for legislation that would protect sharks in Hawaii.

Why do Hydra end up with just a single head?

January 18, 2019

Often considered immortal, the freshwater Hydra can regenerate any part of its body, a trait discovered by the Geneva naturalist Abraham Trembley nearly 300 years ago. Any fragment of its body containing a few thousands cells ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.