Bird dads that sing to their eggs get more attentive chicks

By Karl Gruber 17 August 2017
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These findings are the first to show that unborn chicks can learn to recognise parent’s songs.

FAIRY-WRENS learn to recognise their father’s song even before they hatch from their egg, a new study says.

Songbirds such as the superb fairy-wrens learn their songs from their parents. Each new generation of chicks takes song elements from their father and mother to make their own new song.

“Song is important for songbirds because song characteristics determine mate choice, territory defence, and species recognition,” said Sonia Kleindorfer, Professor in Animal Behaviour at Flinders University who led the new study.

Until now it was thought that these birds started learning their tunes right after birth. But Sonia’s study shows that superb fairy-wren chicks start their song lessons while still inside their eggs and it seems they are particularly keen on their father’s singing.

To study the effect songs had on chick embryos Kleindorfer and her team recorded adult songs from male and female superb fairy-wrens, including from fathers and mothers and from unfamiliar males and females and recorded how the heart rates of embryos were affected by playback of these songs.

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A superb fairy-wren egg. (Image Credit: Sonia Kleindorfer)

“Embryos paid more attention to song if they were raised in families with high song rate by the mother and father. In particular, embryos paid more attention to male song if their fathers sang frequently during incubation,” Kleindorfer says.

This is the first study to show that embryos (chicks still inside their eggs) raised in a rich acoustical environment pay more attention to song, and that the more a father sang to its eggs, the more attention he got from the embryo.

This preference for the father’s song may have to do with the higher frequency of male songs, Kleindorfer explained. “The most parsimonious explanation is that embryos could perceive the higher frequency of the male song, because they had stronger response to any male song and not just their fathers’ song. Perhaps embryos had been neurologically primed through song exposure from their fathers, and then could more easily detect the song of a male versus female because male song had higher frequency,” she said.