The Word of the Bird

Editor in Chief Nick Carrion

Photographs by Elizabeth Lough

I`iwi pirched on a branch looking for food

When travelling around the island of Hawai’i, our ears are under a constant barrage of sounds from a variety of sources. Cars, planes, rain, and people all contribute to the soundtrack of our daily lives. And then of course, there are the birds. Our state boasts an impressive array of rare and interesting bird life, and to most of us they may all sound more or less the same. But students and researchers at the Listening Observatory for Hawaiian Ecosystems (LOHE) Lab are hard at work unravelling the mysteries of bird songs.

Dr. Patrick Hart explains the purpose of the lab. “Acoustic communication is a major form of social behavior, and so we’re trying to understand how a changing climate and a changing world is affecting important social behaviors in animals,” says Hart. “Because we know it affects population size, and the ability of animals to move, habitat fragmentation affects population, but we don’t know how this affects the behavior of animals, which is super important to their reproduction and all that.”

As with humans, one of the most important social behaviors that birds exhibit is vocal communication. Hart continues, “We’re doing things like looking at the effects of decline in population size on the complexity of the language of animals. So it’s kind of like in human populations, where as human populations decline, one of the things that is lost is the language. And you can say the same thing about animals, especially birds. They learn what they say to each other, they learn their song from each other. So a baby bird as it’s growing up, if it’s living with lots of other birds it’s learning what it says from lots of teachers. And it can build up a very rich, if you want to call it, ‘bird language.’

Whereas if the bird is in a population that’s crashed, that’s not doing very well, if there’s only a few individuals, there’s not many teachers. And so you might imagine its language might be a lot less rich, with a lot smaller vocabulary.”

One unfortunate example of this is the ‘alala, or Hawaiian Crow. Once plentiful on the Big Island, the ‘alala is now extinct in the wild, and only a small population exists in captivity. When comparing sound recordings of the last wild population with those currently in captivity, it was found that the birds had lost a lot of the different sounds they used to communicate. Hart hopes that this lab will be able to put together a comprehensive catalogue of bird sounds on the islands. “A lot of it is no one’s ever really documented all the variability in Hawaiian bird songs,” he says. “So we’re trying to understand how complex their song is, and how that varies with where you go in the islands, how many of them there are, and all that. So everyone in the lab is doing projects relating to different aspects of bird song and song variability.”

And indeed, bird is the word here at the LOHE Lab. From nesting patterns, to mating habits, to tracking population decline, the amount of knowledge that can be gained just by listening to these animals seems almost endless. Graduate student Nicole Fernandez explains her project.

“Currently I am working on my thesis. I am looking at how ‘oma’o, which is a thrush species, how their vocalizations differ in a fragmented landscape versus a continuous forest.” She says that groups of the same species in different, isolated patches of forest may have different dialects of songs, and that this can lead to populations not recognizing others as the same species. “This is definitely good for future use because birds communicate by their songs. If they are not able to recognize each other, although they are capable of breeding, they most likely won’t mate because their songs are so different.”

Fernandez says the LOHE Lab has helped her follow her goals. “My plan is to get a job. I would really like to continue working in conservation, doing bird work, trying to preserve what diversity we have left.”

Her project, like the others currently underway at the bioacoustics lab, is financed by a grant from the National Science Foundation. As Hart explains, “With this CREST (Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology) grant, we are trying to support as many graduate students on their work as we can, so they can go off into resource management or further in education. They could get a PhD, or go work at an agency or something. And then it also creates a good pipeline for mentorship for undergraduates.”

So between providing opportunities for students and aiding in conserving and understanding our feathered friends, Dr. Hart’s LOHE bioacoustics lab is truly for the birds.