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Australian Pied Butcherbirds Improvise Like Jazz Musicians

Scientists at Freie Universität Berlin, City College of New York, and Macquarie Universität in Sydney Present New Findings

№ 386/2016 from Nov 08, 2016

A new study indicates that the songs of some birds follow the same rules as human music. The study was done by scientists from Freie Universität Berlin, the City College of New York, and Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. They found that these birds, which have particularly complex and large repertoires, strike a balance between complexity and regularity when singing. The findings were published in the prestigious Royal Society Open Science magazine.

The study was conducted on Australian pied butcherbirds (cractus nigrogularis), which according to Prof. Constance Scharff, a biologist from Freie Universität, are also called flute birds due to their particularly beautiful singing that can often be heard for hours on end after midnight and into the early morning. Scharff participated in a multidisciplinary team that included biologist Ofer Tchernichovski, his doctoral student Eathan Janney, engineer Lucas Parra, all from the City College of New York, musician and writer David Rothenberg from the New Jersey Institute of Technology as well as violinist and musicologist Hollis Taylor Macquarie University in Sydney. Hollis Taylor, who has perfect pitch, had been transcribing the songs of butcherbirds for years and noticed that they seemed to follow musical principles. The findings of this study are the first to support her theory with statistical data. "Butcherbirds behave almost like jazz musicians, who improvise between repetition and novelty," said Scharff. These findings suggest that musical variety, which captivates the listener, follows similar principles in songbirds and in humans.

Press Photo

An Australian butcherbird singing
Credit: Hollis Taylor

Sound recording: Nocturnal singing of a butcherbird.
Recorded near Trephina Gorge, Northern Territory, Australia on August 27, 2016, at 5.11 a.m. by Hollis Taylor.

The photo and sound recording may be downloaded and used by journalists free of charge in connection with reporting on the findings in this press release and provided that due credit is given.

The Publication

Janney E, Taylor; H, Scharff; C, Rothenberg; D, Parra; LC, Tchernichovski O. (2016): “Temporal regularity increases with repertoire complexity in the Australian pied butcherbird’s song" in: Royal Society Open Science. 3: 160357. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.160357


Prof. Constance Scharff, PhD, Department of Biology, Chemistry, Pharmacy, Freie Universität Berlin, Tel.: +49 30 838-53869, Email: constance.scharff@fu-berlin.de