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City Birds Change Their Tune

February 21, 2012

City birds, it turns out, talk differently than country birds.

“A city presents a very different acoustic environment than a more natural area, with much more noise and more echoing surfaces,” explains Science Professor David Krauss.

Recently interviewed on CUNY TV’s Science and U show, he explored the subject of spring love—or more specifically, on how the mating habits of birds are impacted by noisy urban settings.

“A number of species of birds have developed or evolved a repertoire of modified songs that seem more effective in this new environment,” says Krauss. “In some species, the low frequencies are lost and song complexity is increased, in an effort by males to be heard clearly by females.”

Female birds judge their prospective mates on a number of criteria—appearance, behavior, song—all of which point to genes more likely to produce hardy offspring.

Krauss notes that female birds select males they can hear over audio interference caused by automobile and air traffic, high-volume radios, barking dogs, and echoes from apartment buildings.

“The males with characteristics in their songs that make them more audible, produce more offspring,” he says, “and pass on more of their genes to the next generation.”

Krauss leads BMCC student field trips into New York City parks, exploring these and other concepts—sexual selection, biodiversity and the parks’ role in the urban setting.

Often, students he has mentored continue to pursue the natural sciences. He and two BMCC alums—Rebecca Panko, a biological science major at City College, and Kimberly Thompson, a graduate student at Columbia University—are preparing a paper with the working title, “An Environmental Analysis of New York City Parks and Their Biodiversity,” which they will present at the 12th Northeast Natural History Conference in Syracuse, New York, this April.

To learn more, watch Professor Krauss’s interview, as part of the CUNY TV's Science & U episode, Science and Love, by clicking HERE. (Professor Krauss's segment starts at 11:22 in the video.)

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  • Professor David Krauss, interviewed on CUNY TV, explains how urban environments impact biodiversity and animal behavior
  • Male birds are adapting their song, he says, to be heard over urban noises such as traffic and loud music
  • During mating season, being heard is the first step in winning a female bird’s heart

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