By Wayne Meyer, PhD
The conversations of Painted Buntings at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge have been listened to carefully this summer. Two of my students, Leticia Pilar and Taliesin Kinser, and I have been recording their songs since the first of June and are now playing their songs back to them. The research is intended to determine how Painted Buntings tell each other just how angry they are.
In Song Sparrows and several other songbirds, a bird can register displeasure by singing at a neighbor. If the neighbor matches that song and sings it back at the first bird, this means “I’m mad enough to start a fight”. If he doesn’t feel that angry, he can avoid escalating the conflict by singing another song that he shares with the first bird. This tells the first bird “I recognize your complaint, but don’t want to dispute with you”. A third choice is to sing a song that the first bird can’t match because it isn’t in his repertoire; this stops the conflict.
Painted Buntings, however, don’t share songs, so they can’t use this system of matching to regulate aggression levels. We have been using a wooden decoy atop a speaker to simulate territory intrusions. If we use songs from a neighbor, the response will be muted since the buntings have settled their boundaries and don’t need to react strongly to neighbors who pose no threat. If we use songs from a stranger, however, the response is very aggressive. We record these interactions and compare the response to strangers with the response to neighbors. So far, we have found that Painted Buntings use virtuosity to indicate aggressiveness. They sing more songs, longer songs and use a larger proportion of their repertoire the angrier they get.
Next time you listen to a bird song in your backyard, pay attention and see if the singer changes his tune or if he attracts the attention of another songster. Nearly all of the “songbirds” in North America use some sort of song modulation to communicate with each other.
Photos by Dick Malnory