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There's more to birdsong than meets the ears

What accent do you have? Britain is home to an abundance of easily recognised regional ones. If you travel the length of the country you can hear everything from Scottish to Cornish, via Geordie and Brummie. 

But did you know that birds also have accents?

Scientists have noticed that birds in towns and cities have higher-pitched songs than birds living in the countryside. It seems that songs with higher notes travel further and sound clearer in urban areas because they echo less off buildings.

Accent-like differences have been reported for a number of different British birds, including blackbirds, chaffinches and great tits. And there are interesting cases abroad, too.

The yellowhammer, for instance, has an unusual story.

Yellowhammer singing © Stefan Berndtsson, licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

This colourful bird is native to Europe and parts of Asia. But in the 1860s and 1870s, yellowhammers were introduced to New Zealand. They spread widely.

Male yellowhammers have a distinctive song. Some think it sounds like they're saying 'a little bit of bread and no cheese' (listen to a recording on the xeno-canto website). Individuals living in different areas have clearly distinguishable dialects where the final phrase of their song is different.

Researchers detected European dialects in the birds living in New Zealand, but not those in the UK. It appears the birds from the UK took European dialects with them to New Zealand, while the populations that remained in the UK gradually lost these dialects.

Dr Alex Bond, senior curator in charge of the Museum bird collection, says:

'Interestingly, yellowhammers that were introduced to New Zealand from Britain still sound like they're from the UK, while the birds in the UK have lost their old dialect.

'It's an intriguing parallel to what has happened with people. I lived in Newfoundland in Canada for nearly 10 years. Many of the local words and accents there arrived with British and Irish immigrants in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, but the words are no longer used in Britain and Ireland.'

Benefits of sounding different

As humans we often find it quite a pleasure to listen to an unfamiliar lilt, but it can sometimes make communication more difficult.

The same may be true of birds, but regional differences may offer benefits in addition to how well they can be heard in different environments.

Research suggests that birds tend to respond better to familiar accents.

In the USA, researchers found that particular cells in the brains of swamp sparrows from Pennsylvania and New York, which have regional song differences, only responded to songs sung in their own accent.

Scientists think female birds may use dialects to their advantage. Regional song differences could help the females distinguish local males from outsiders.

This could be beneficial when deciding who to mate with as local males may be better adapted to the neighbourhood, making their offspring more likely to survive than any fathered by intruders.

Listen to the dawn chorus

No matter where you live, a great time to hear bird calls is first thing in the morning. All kinds of birds sing together, creating a symphony of birdsong called the dawn chorus.

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