Singing in the Springtime

Nesting Box

Nesting Box

08 April 2013

BBC Radio Wales’ Science Café travelled to Aberystwyth University this week to find out why birds sing so much in spring time – and who they’re singing for. 

Listening to the birds in the University’s Penglais Woods, Dr Rupert Marshall, lecturer in animal behaviour, explained that song is both a means of defence and attraction “Birds sing songs to defend their territory against intruders and to attract a mate”.

Do they use the same song for both?  “The more elaborate the song, the more likely it is aimed at attracting a female – some birds, like blackcaps, sing songs of two halves: one aimed at males, one at females”.

Adam Walton, the show’s presenter, was also interested in the visual representation of song in sonagrams.  These pictures, which look rather artistic, allow scientists to analyse song in detail: how high and how long is each whistle, trill and note?  They are crucial in the ongoing investigation of the effect that man-made noise has on the acoustic environment: buses can be seen as well as heard but birds may need to adapt their behaviour if they’re to keep up.

“Some birds do sing at a higher pitch in noisy areas” says Dr Marshall.  “But they also change the style of their song – like speaking in an echoing building, city singers adapt to their environment”

And with 100 nestboxes to monitor as part of his research, Dr Marshall welcomes the assistance of his undergraduate students.  “Knowing when the local birds start to lay eggs helps us spot long term trends and changes” he explains.

“We can also focus our observations on each nest at particular times in its breeding cycle – it’s remarkable how fast they can develop: from a newly laid egg to a flying chick in barely four weeks”.

Science Café is broadcast on BBC Radio Wales on Tuesday 9th April (6.30pm), repeated Sunday 14th at 6.30, or listen again via the programme‚Äôs website:

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For more information on Dr Marshall’s research, visit his webpage: