How does the caged bird sing?

Natural History Collections host open house

By Christian Hunick
On November 16, 2017

Photo Contributed by Angela Rollins

The biology department hosted an open house tour of the Angelo State Natural History Collections on Nov. 7, with a special presentation from Assistant Biology Professor and Curator of Ornithology Dr. Ben Skipper.

"ASNHC is a series of scientific collections of specimens, and we have birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and plants which we curate, collect and take care of for scientific study," Biology Professor Dr. Michael Dixon said.

The event, which took place in the Cavness Science Building, featured Dr. Skipper’s lecture titled "Garrulous Grackles and Other Noisy Birds: Uncovering the Science of Birdsong." Deviating slightly from the name, Dr. Skipper didn’t focus much on grackles, but rather more on birdsong itself.

It turns out that birds don’t produce sounds with their larynx the same way humans do.

"Birds possess a larynx, but that’s not their vocal organ," Skipper said. "Their vocal organ is situated much lower down on the trachea, and it’s something known as the syrinx. The interesting thing about the syrinx is it comes together where the trachea connects into the bronchia . . . That gives birds a very unique quality. They can make two sounds at once."

Another facet of birdsongs is whether they are learned or innate.

Skipper said there are three groups of birds in which scientists have been able to demonstrate the learning process: the Apodiformes, which includes hummingbirds; the Psittaciformes, such as parrots; and the Passeriformes, or the songbirds.

In addition, he described the auditory template hypothesis, which suggests that birds that must learn their songs are able to distinguish the calls of their own species because they are born with a sort of template that tells them what calls to imprint on.

Skipper also described the history of techniques used in analyzing birdsongs, as well as different information birds convey to each other through their calls.

The chickadee, for example, will repeat the syllable "dee" more times if there is a predator nearby to warn others of the threat.

After the lecture, visitors were able to view some of the nearly 150,000 specimens in the ASNHC, such as skunks, bats, birds, coyotes and more. They could even get up close and personal with live reptiles.

"We are the behind the scenes part of what most museums have, and like a museum, we are interested in educating the public, educating our own students and helping to further what we know about flora and fauna," Dixon said.

The specimens are all catalogued in the ASNHC database, which is available to the public.

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