scientists decode the complex song of the Northern Mockingbird | Biology

In one new study published in May 2021 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, an interdisciplinary team of researchers attempted to describe the specific compositional rules behind the song of the Northern Mockingbird (Polyglot mimus), focusing on how the bird moves from one type of syllable to the next.

The Mockingbird uses musical techniques like those of humans. Image credit: MPI for Empirical Aesthetics.

Among songbirds, the Mockingbird has an extraordinarily varied song that is much more complex than the songs of most species.

Mockers have huge repertoires of singing elements which are arranged in a particular way: individual syllables, which may be a single sound or a small group of sounds, are repeated to form short phrases, which in their turn are repeated. round, are chained into long chants that can last for minutes.

As their name suggests, scoffers are also famous for their capacity imitate.

They will mimic bird sounds and other environmental sounds, as long as those sounds are acoustically similar to the range of acoustic characteristics typical of mockingbird vocalizations.

Model breeding studies show, for example, that they mimic the calls of the blue jay but not the calls of the crow, the calls of the American robin but not the songs of the American robin, the tree frogs but not the bullfrogs. .

“When you listen to a mockingbird for a while, you can hear that the bird is not randomly stringing together the melodies it is mimicking,” said Dr. Tina Roeske, neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics. .

“On the contrary, he seems to sequence similar melody snippets according to consistent rules.”

“To examine this intuition scientifically, however, we had to use quantitative analyzes to test whether the data actually supported our hypotheses.”

In the study, Dr Roeske and his colleagues – Elon University field biologist Dr Dave Gammon and New Jersey Institute of Technology music philosopher Dr David Rothenberg – analyzed songs from five mocking birds.

“We would like to think that our study shows the value of combining different forms of human knowledge in investigating the same problem,” they explained.

“When confronted with a complex mockingbird song, a musician hears one thing, an ornithologist another, and a signal analyst another. “

“The most complete human knowledge of all natural phenomena comes from the combination of distinct human forms of knowledge – no perspective denies the others. They are stronger when applied together.

Scientists were able to identify four compositional strategies that birds use to switch between sounds: changing timbre, changing pitch, stretching the transition (lengthening it in time), and compressing it (shortening it in time). time).

“The complex melodies they create are music for the ears not only of other birds but also of humans,” they said.

“So it’s no surprise that (human) composers of various musical styles use similar techniques in their work.”


Tina C. Roeske et al. Mockingbird Morphing Music: Structured transitions in a complex bird song. Front. Psychologist, published online May 4, 2021; doi: 10.3389 / fpsig.2021.630115

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