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Bird Brain Should be a Compliment

Perhaps not for every bird, but certainly in the case of male song sparrows.

Malesong sparrow sitting in a tree, singing.
Male song sparrow has incredible memory and recall capabilities. Basar via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0

Any good DJ knows playing the same song too many times at a party is a buzzkill. Likewise, male sparrows will remix and shuffle their set list to impress the ladies.

The songbirds keep track of each new melody they sing and switch up the order every 30 minutes to keep the ladies guessing, according to a study published in Proceedings of The Royal Society B.

A male sparrow's song is key to wooing (and wowing!) a potential mate and competing for breeding territories. Previous studies have shown that female sparrows prefer a tune with complexity, vigor, and distinctiveness that showcases their suitor's smarts. But scientists weren't sure whether males were getting creative with their musical talent intentionally or not.

New findings suggest male sparrows don't randomly sift through their tracks, instead they curate and design their own playlists. They found that bachelor birds avoid singing the same old tune by intentionally selecting and stringing together 6 to 12 different two-second soundbites during performances lasting up to 30 minutes.

"I think that what's surprising about this is the scale," says Jon Sakata, an ornithologist at McGill University. "You know, 20 to 30 minutes is quite a long time in terms of cycling through different song types." Before repeating any song, the male sparrows will sing through their entire repertoire.

Though normally meant as an insult to someone's intelligence, perhaps "bird brain" should actually be used as a compliment.

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