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by Julio Godoy

Researchers Find History of Rainforest Told in Birdsong

(IPS) -- Many wild birds are able to imitate the simple ringtones of mobile telephones, German ornithologists report, underscoring the influence of humans on the evolution of birds.

These birds can "sing up to 78 different phrases, and many of the simplest telephone ringtones coincide with them," ornithologist Matthias Werner, of the government's bird protection agency, told Tierramerica.

"The common titbird (Parus major) can sing 32 different songs," he said.

According to Werner, birds like the Eurasian jackdaw (Corvus monedula), the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and the Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius) -- very common in Germany and Central European countries -- were put in contact with electronically created sounds as a result of the expansion of urban life, the food opportunities provided by cities, and the fast-paced growth of mobile phone use.

Another factor that attracts birds to cities is the expansion of protected green areas in urban perimeters.

Several other ornithologists have reached conclusions similar to Werner's.

"It's in the nature of these birds to imitate sounds in their environment that correspond to their own musical capabilities," said Richard Schneider, of the NABU Bird Protection Center, in the city of Mossingen (600 km south of Berlin).

"They can imitate those sounds so well that sometimes it is very difficult to hear the difference," he told Tierramerica.

"That's how evolution is: there is no predetermined scheme, and the influences of the environment, even if they are artificial, turn out to be considerable," he added.

"The song is useful for male birds not only in the search for a female or to mark its territory, but also as a deceptive maneuver when faced with potential dangers. For this reason, imitating environmental sounds is part of the daily lives of birds," explained Schneider.

The jay is able to imitate the songs of other birds, sound cries of alarm to warn of danger, or make sounds like cracks or meows. The black starling simulates the sound of brakes, human whistles and even ambulance sirens.

The experts agree that these phenomena do not imply the loss of the species' original songs.

Nor is the apparent cacophony dangerous. The diversity of songs can only be identified by members of each species. Most wild birds are not yet able to repeat the more complex sounds made by the newer mobile phones, or the polyphonic sounds of electronic music.

This adaptation comes as no surprise to biologists or other experts in ecology. "No species can survive if it isn't capable of adapting," biologist Matthias Glaubrecht, a professor at Humboldt University in Berlin, told Tierramerica.

"The decisive factors are the scope and rate of change in the species' habitat," said Glaubrecht, research director for the university's Museum of Natural History.

Sometimes it is possible for species to adapt to very rapid changes, and "in many cases it's evident that human activity speeds up evolution," he said.

Given the risk that birds might forget their original songs as a result of human influence, the tunes have been archived in European and North American universities, allowing the possibility of recovering them -- a step backwards, perhaps, in the constant process of adaptation that is evolution.

The Museum of Natural History alone holds more than 110,000 recordings of sounds made by birds, mammals, insects and even fish. The archives include the songs of 1,800 bird species.

Those files are part of a European network of biological acoustics for taxonomy and conservation, created in 2006 to manage the recordings of animal sounds as a research tool.

Because climate change poses a serious threat of extinction for many species, collecting animal sounds is considered a crucial tool for environmental protection. Bio-acoustic signals are specific to each species and these behaviors are lost forever when a species goes extinct.

The European network for bio-acoustics states in its founding charter that it is urgent to facilitate knowledge, preservation and precise documentation of acoustic signals in the animal kingdom.

According to the sound archive director at Humboldt University, Karl-Heinz Frommolt, animal taxonomy should be accompanied by a non-invasive study of the habitat by the researcher, and "the acoustic method is very useful for determining measures of environmental protection to be adopted."

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Albion Monitor   July 2, 2008   (

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