The Songs of Starlings in Augrabies

It is not difficult to appreciate the beautiful sounds of a songbird, especially when in the great outdoors. Upon closer inspection, it becomes possible to identify different calls and tunes in different circumstances, but these dynamics can be quite complex.

Initial studies were done on pale-winged starlings in the Augrabies Falls National Park between 2011 and 2013. Now researchers have returned to try and gain greater insight into different aspects of vocal communication in this bird. They are searching for a link between vocal and social behaviour, and will compare this species to other starling species worldwide.

Earlier research work involved ringing birds and studying them to gain a better understanding of their ecology, as very little was previously known about pale-winged starlings. Now, teams are back to collect more data, and this is where marked birds come in handy.

“We need to be able to follow individual birds over several years, to see if their repertoire stays the same, or changes over time,” explains Adrian Craig, professor in Zoology at Rhodes University.

Augrabies is a great place to study these birds. “They are very accustomed to people and thus it is often possible to get close to them for recordings and behavioural observations,” Craig says.

Furthermore, the population in the park is very stable, says Martine Hausberger, from the University of Rennes in France, project leader of the overall project. “Most ringed birds can therefore be found again in the following years so social and vocal dynamics can be studied.”

The research team has already found new features of pale-winged starling song. While pairs here often sing long warbling duets, they have also been recorded singing sharp, shorter songs, suited to communication over greater distances.

Hausberger notes that in starlings: “We found evidence of turn taking, a human characteristic aspect of language that may well find its roots in animal communication. The territorial species (such as with red-winged starlings) have clear separate songs that leave intervals for a responder.”

Family groups of glossy starlings, on the other hand, tend to sing communal choruses.

The results collected in Augrabies will contribute to a much larger project. Hausberger says that they also plan to compare the songs of the Augrabies birds to those found in other locations in order to look for potential dialects.

“It is a rather common phenomenon in songbirds.” In addition, it becomes possible to compare starling species in different areas and as well as different countries. As an example, red-winged starlings and pale-winged starlings are in the same genus, but differ in both vocalisation and social behaviour, says Craig.

The project is funded as a collaborative project through the French National Centre for Scientific Research and the National Research Foundation in South Africa. The project is set to run for another two to three years.

Sightings of ringed pale-winged starlings can be reported to:

  • [email protected]
  • [email protected]
  • [email protected]

Written by René de Klerk– SANParks Times Reporter

Pictures: Daniel Danckwerts

Content courtesy of SANParks Times: www.sanparkstimes.co.za

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