City life speeds up birdsong

People love to joke about how big-city life makes people talk faster, walk faster, and generally stress out. But according to a study in this month’s issue of Current Biology, the urban environment also turbocharges birds. A couple of Dutch scientists recorded the song of the Great Tit — Parus major, pictured above — in both forest settings and city settings, then compared them. The result? As they note in their abstract:

Urban songs were shorter and sung faster than songs in forests, and often concerned atypical song types. Furthermore, we found consistently higher minimum frequencies in ten out of ten city-forest comparisons from London to Prague and from Amsterdam to Paris.

Their paper is behind a paywall, alas, but for free they put online a dozen audio samples of the bird songs — so you can hear the difference for yourself! It’s pretty cool. Go to the bottom of the page and listen in particular to the comparison of the songs recorded in downtown Paris versus the rural area of Fontainebleu; it’s precisely the same call, except pitchshifted higher and faster in Paris.

Evolutionary scientists have theorized for decades that the noisy environment of cities would alter birdcall, but this is some of the most impressive evidence yet assembled. It’s also metaphorically lovely. When I spill my coffee while fumbling to answer a mobile-phone call while racing for the subway next week, I can take comfort: Even the songbirds are racing to keep up.

(Thanks to Eurekalert for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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