Spotify for the Birds: Song Sparrows organize and shuffle their playlists

You don’t have to be miles from civilization to see birds. This Song Sparrow was singing vigorously in the middle of San Francisco.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

A new study of bird “playlists” has me feeling very close to male song sparrows. Birds organize and shuffle their song selections in a surprisingly complex way, the researchers found, by tracking how long and how often they sing songs from their repertoire. They’re a bit like me, obsessed with songs, but trying not to burn themselves out on the same tracks.

North American songbirds are known for their enthusiastic and heartrending vocal exercises. Males use songs to attract females, and they put a lot of effort into singing. Remarkably, they can also track the order and frequency of their songs for up to 30 minutes.

Song sparrows cycle through 12 separate two-second songs, but often string together the same song multiple times, essentially repeating it (you can listen to some of them on eBird). A team of researchers from the University of Miami and Duke University wanted to know if what appeared to be discographic tracking was accidental or intentional. The group published a study on the subject on Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The study involved a lot of fieldwork recording song sparrows in Pennsylvania for hours at a time. “The first clue that men are keeping tabs on their tweets to avoid repeats was similar to a Spotify playlist, men typically sing their entire repertoire before repeating a song,” Duke said in a statement.

Researchers have found notable patterns in bird songs. If a particular song had a lot of repeats, the sparrow would wait longer to put it back in the playlist. If the song was only repeated a few times, it would come back earlier in the playlist.

The team describes this as “an extremely rare talent” called “long range addictions”. “This means that what a male song sparrow is singing at the moment depends on what he sang 30 minutes ago,” the university explained. That’s an impressive amount of time to cover. Duke noted that the previous record holder was the canary, which can only manage about 5 seconds of this type of song information.

Researchers suggest that song sparrows’ mixing ability may be linked to attracting females and convincing them to stay as mates. Maybe being able to offer variety in how songs are presented is a nice feature if you’re a sparrow. Might work for humans, too.

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