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Behavioral biology: »The dictionary of the nightingale comprises around 2000 stanzas«


A team led by the biology Silke Voigt Heucke has created a »Nightingale Dictionary« – and found out amazing things about the song of the small birds. Mobile phone recordings also helped with the research.

Enlarge image

Nightingale: A single adult male can handle about 180 stanza types

Photo: Michael Durham / FLPA / IMAGO


For years you have been listening to the singing of nightingales, which can also be heard again in Germany.

What did you learn from it?


We actually thought that we would find regional variations in the singing of nightingales, so to speak dialects.

That was our working hypothesis.

But to our surprise we could not confirm it.

The singing seems to be astonishingly stable despite the great variety in the occurrence of the most common strophic types.


How did you come to this conclusion?


Our team led by the biologist Denise Jäckel evaluated a huge data set with over 14,140 digital and analogue recordings of bird songs from 13 countries and several years.

The oldest recordings from the animal sound archive of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin date back to 1930.


How did you get the recordings?


Among other things, we worked with the Naturblick app developed at the Natural History Museum, which allows users to quickly pull out their smartphone and record the song whenever they hear a nightingale.

The file was then sent to our servers and analyzed by us.

That was a real treasure.


Ornithology on the cell phone, is that more than just a publicity campaign?



This analysis would not have been possible without citizen science.


How reliable and high-quality are any cell phone recordings of strangers?


The quality of mobile phone recordings is surprisingly good, but of course we systematically compared the data with professional recordings, including those from the Free University of Berlin, recorded with high-quality directional microphones.

The difference wasn't as big as one might expect.


Only what you were actually looking for doesn't appear in it - dialects?



Or at least we haven't found the dialects yet due to the complex song of the nightingale.

The variety of the nightingale stanzas is enormous.


How do you recognize a verse in the nightingale's song?


That's actually quite easy to hear.

The song of the nightingale is melodic, sonorous and clearly structured by pauses between the verses.

Each verse lasts around three to five seconds, followed by a short pause before the next verse is presented.

There are buzz stanzas, trill stanzas, and the whistling stanzas that are particularly characteristic of nightingale song.

This is what is known as the sobs of the nightingale: a series of melancholic and pure whistles at the beginning of a new verse.

You'll understand what I mean as soon as you listen to it.


How many verses did you find?


So far we have been able to identify a whopping 1868 different strophe types in total, at population level.

This number is therefore not dominated by individual animals, but is the sum of all variations in all animals examined together.

That is much more than was previously known from regionally anchored studies.


So far, hasn't it been assumed that a male can handle around 190 types of verses?


Yes, a single adult male can handle about 180 stanza types, younger males around 120. So far, the standard of nightingale research has been the individual.

But we didn't look at how many verse types a single male can sing, but how large the repertoire of an entire population is.

We have, so to speak, created an encyclopedia of the nightingale song.

Based on our study, we know that the nightingale's dictionary currently contains around 2000 stanzas - but possibly even more!


But how is it that this confusingly large number of stanzas remains so stable over time and space?

Surely there are always errors, mutations, variations?


We also ask ourselves this question – and would like to answer it with a follow-up project.

We have a hypothesis: it is already known that the grammar of the nightingale song has a strict syntax.

An individual cannot just sing at will, then the song may lose its effectiveness in attracting females and defending territory.

Perhaps the frequent, stable verse types have certain key functions that give the song a fixed form.

But who knows.


Can you just re-analyze the data to look for the syntax?


That would be difficult.

Many of our recordings are relatively short.

For a systematic analysis of the Nightingale syntax, we need recordings that are an hour or longer.


Do you already have new projects?


We would like to offer the research case of the nightingale as a citizen science project in other countries as well.

Anyone who has ever been to Tuscany knows how wonderfully the nightingales sing through the vineyards there.

Southern France or Spain would also be interesting for us.

The beauty of the nightingale's song certainly holds many more surprises.

Source: spiegel

All tech articles on 2022-05-18

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