Lost British birdsong discovered in New Zealand birds

Recordings of New Zealand yellowhammer accents enable scientists to hear how their British relatives might have sounded 150 years ago

A new study reveals that a type of native birdsong, now lost in Britain, can still be heard in New Zealand where the birds were introduced in the 19th century.

By comparing recordings of yellowhammer accents in both countries scientists were able to hear how the birds’ song might have sounded in the UK 150 years ago.

The study, published in Ecography, examined yellowhammer accents in the UK and New Zealand, where over 600 of the birds were introduced in the 1860’s and 70’s and later became pests. It found some dialects that likely existed in the UK appear to have gone extinct, yet they still exist in New Zealand – a phenomenon that also occurs in human languages.

The researchers say the decline in birdsong is likely to be linked to falling yellowhammer populations in the UK.

The research was led by a Czech team, who encouraged volunteers to collect and submit recordings of singing yellowhammers using smartphones and cameras. Using these citizen science project recordings, the scientists compared the patterns of yellowhammer dialects in the native range of Great Britain, and in the invaded range of New Zealand.

The New Zealand birds had almost twice as many dialects as their British relatives, overturning the scientists’ expectations that the range of dialects would be greater in the mother country.

Lead author Pavel Pipek, of the Charles University in Prague, said: “It was fascinating to have this unique opportunity to study yellowhammer dialects from native and introduced populations and how they have evolved over 150 years.

“This phenomenon of lost birds’ dialect is an avian equivalent of what happens with human languages. For example, some English words, which are no longer spoken in Great Britain, are still in use in the former British colonies.”

Experts think the best explanation for their findings is that New Zealand yellowhammers have retained song structures which were originally from the UK. However, these dialects have subsequently been lost in the mother country, possibly due to the widespread decline in yellowhammers in the UK.

Dr Mark Eaton, RSPB principal conservation scientist and study co-author, said: “Yellowhammers are a delightful farmland bird with unmistakeable bright yellow heads. At one time they were a common sight, but sadly their numbers have declined so rapidly that nowadays they are difficult to find in many parts of the UK.

“It’s quite easy to identify the different [yellowhammer] dialects and it’s also been a great species to get recordings of calls on because they are quite a widespread species with a distinctive, pleasant song.

“It’s likely the decline in yellowhammers has led to some of their original dialects being lost, yet these have survived in the songs of the birds in New Zealand due to the abundant populations. This birdsong may therefore serve as a living archive of songs sung by yellowhammers in 19th century Britain.”


Georgia Brown

The GuardianTramp

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