Discovery: Plain-Tailed Wrens are Cooperative Crooners

Musically minded plain-tailed wrens could teach as a thing or two about sharing the stage. Photo: Browerk

On the slopes of the Antisana volcano in Ecuador, the song of the plain-tailed wren can be heard rattling through the bamboo: sharp, shrill rounds of notes, like the quick rhythmic roll of feet in a tap-dance number.

What might sound like one bird’s song is in fact a duet, and based on recent research, it may be one of nature’s most impressive.

The research, published in Science last week, reveals that the wren’s song is not some pre-programmed pattern that the birds mindlessly produce but instead a fine example cooperative creation. The birds listen to each other and understand the song as a whole, based on the interaction of two voices.

Researchers studied more than 1500 hours of these songs, both duets and solos. They found that when these birds sing alone, the wren sang only his or her own portion of the duet and waited silently during the duration that would be their partner’s part before resuming. In musical parlance: they didn’t sing on the rests. There are plenty of human conductors who would love to have such meticulous musicians.

Also of interest: when a male stumbled mid-song, the female would cue him back in. These birds literally know the full score and adjust their song to their partner’s performance.

For a great sound byte, check out Ed Yong’s Discover magazine blog, “Not Exactly Rocket Science,” or you can listen to the study’s lead author discuss these songs in this AAAS Science youtube clip.

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