It’s cheap to cheep

Monday 29 September 2003

Scientists studying just how much hard work it is for birds to attract a mate, have found that it doesn’t take any more effort to sing an elaborate song than a simple ‘cheep cheep’.

The biologists at the University of St Andrews studied how much energy the male canary uses to sing and found remarkable evidence that the birds use the same amount of energy no matter how fancy their tune is.

Dr Sally Ward and Professor Peter Slater at the University’s School of Biology focussed on the differences between the songs of two breeds of the canary – the Fife canary and the Roller canary. The Fife canary on one hand has a particularly loud and complex song, while the Roller canary has a very simple and quiet one.

The team began their research – due to be published in the journal ‘Animal Behaviour’ – with the expectation that the most elaborate songs are the result of extra effort (‘energetic cost’), but found that this was not the case for the canary.

“We studied whether singing is energetically costly for song birds because it intuitively appears to be hard work. Garden birds like robins and blackbirds sing very loudly considering how small they are. If you watch birds singing, it looks as though they are putting a lot of effort into it,” explained Dr Ward.

“We studied canaries because they have really loud songs, they sing a great deal and different breeds have very different song types. We expected that the loud varied song of the Fife canary might be quite hard work to produce while the quiet repetitive song of the Roller canary would be easier. This was not the case. Singing didn’t take much energy for either breed of canary and there was no difference between the breeds,” she continued.

The efforts a male goes to to attract a mate in the animal kingdom are well known. Many species of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and insects invest in brilliant displays such as colourful plumage, elaborate dances and tuneful songs to attract mates.

Females generally prefer to mate with males that have the most impressive displays and therefore males tend to compete with each other by trying to produce a display that is more impressive than their competitors.

This generally leads to each male making the largest and best display that he can. ‘Higher quality’ males – those with better genes or territories that provide them with more food – are generally able to produce the best displays thus attracting most mates.

“In the case of the canaries, they have fooled us into thinking it looks like hard work. However, it probably doesn’t fool female canaries who will look for other ‘cues’ such as particular phrases in a song that may be technically difficult to produce. ‘Higher quality’ males (with better brains or better co- ordination of their vocal tracts for example) may be better able to sing these more complex songs,” explained Dr Ward.

She continued: “Female birds can probably pick out the best quality mates from their song, but male birds are not impressing females by showing how much spare energy they have to waste by singing. Before we started our research it was thought that energy cost was an important part of the display, but we have found that, for canaries, it really is ‘cheap to cheep.'”

The paper, “The energy cost of song in the canary, Serinus canaria” is authored by Sally Ward, John R. Speakman (School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen and Rowett Research Institute ) and Peter J. B. Slater and is due to be published in Volume 66, Issue 3 of ‘Animal Behaviour.’



DR SALLY WARD IS AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW ON: +44 (0)1334 463615 or email [email protected]



Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected] Ref: Cheap to Cheep pr 290903 View the latest University news at

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