A Regent honeyeater. Picture: 123RF/SUSAN FLASHMAN
A Regent honeyeater. Picture: 123RF/SUSAN FLASHMAN

Just as humans learn languages, animals learn behaviours crucial for survival and reproduction from older, experienced individuals of the same species. In this way, important “cultures”, such as bird songs, are passed from one generation to the next.

But global biodiversity loss means many animal populations are becoming small and sparsely distributed. This jeopardises the ability of young animals to learn important behaviours.

Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Regent honeyeaters. In a paper published on Friday, we describe how a population crash to fewer than 300 has caused the species’ song culture to break down.

In healthy populations, the song of adult male honeyeaters is complex and long; where the population is very small, the song is diminished and, in many cases, the birds have adopted the song of other species. Sadly, this makes the males less attractive to females, which may increase the chance the Regent honeyeater becomes extinct.

A soft, warbling song

Population decline is damaging song culture in Regent honeyeaters. 

Since 2015, we have monitored the Regent honeyeater — a critically endangered, nectar-feeding songbird. The birds once roamed in huge flocks between Adelaide and Queensland’s central coast, tracking eucalyptus blossom.

As recently as the 1950s, Regent honeyeaters were a common sight in suburban Melbourne and Sydney but are now extremely rare in both cities.

Extensive post-war land clearing has destroyed Regent honeyeater habitat and caused the population to plummet. Most breeding activity is now restricted to the Blue Mountains and Northern Tablelands in New South Wales.

Regent honeyeaters are most vocal during the early stages of their breeding season. Before the population decline, the birds were known for their soft, warbling song produced with characteristic head-bobbing. But with few birds left in the wild, their song is changing — with potentially tragic consequences.

Finding their voice

Birdsong is one of the most well-studied examples of animal culture. Young songbirds learn to sing by listening to, repeating and refining the songs of older flock mates.

Song-learning is often completed in first year of life, after which a birds’ song is “fixed”.

Despite the increasing number of endangered bird species, there is surprisingly little research into how declines in population size and density might damage song culture in wild birds. We sought to explore whether this link existed in Regent honeyeater populations.

Male Regent honeyeaters sing to secure breeding territories and attract mates. We classified the songs of 146 male Regent honeyeaters between 2015 and 2019. We made or obtained high-quality recordings of 47 of these in the wild, and more in captivity. This included wild birds found by the public and reported to BirdLife Australia. We quickly chased up these public sightings to record the birds’ songs before they moved on.

We noted the location of each male and tracked its breeding success. We also recorded the songs of captive-bred Regent honeyeaters that were part of a re-introduction programme.

Changing tunes

Our research showed the songs of remaining wild males vary remarkably across regions. For example, listen to the “proper” song of Regent honeyeaters occurring in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where most of the remaining population occur:

Listen: Regent honeyeater singing a ‘proper’ song

You’ll notice they sound noticeably different to the small number of males hanging on 400km to the north, near Glen Innes. Although these males still sound like a Regent honeyeater, their songs are slower and have a different melody:

Listen: Regent honeyeater singing a slower song

Across the species’ entire range, we found 18 males whose songs sounded nothing like a Regent honeyeater. Instead, they closely resembled those of other bird species. Five male Regent honeyeaters had learned the song of the Little wattlebird:

Listen: Regent honeyeater singing the song of the Little wattlebird

Four males had learned songs of the noisy Friarbird. Others sounded like Pied currawongs, Eastern rosellas or Little friarbirds:

Listen: Regent honeyeater singing the song of a Little friarbird

There are isolated cases of individual songbirds mistakenly learning the song of a different species, but to find 12% of males singing only other species’ songs is unprecedented in wild animal populations.

We believe Regent honeyeaters are now so rare in the landscape, some young males are unable to locate adult males from which to learn their song. Instead, the young males mistakenly learn the songs of different bird species they’ve associated with when developing their repertoires.

Evidence suggests this song behaviour is distinct from the mimicry common in some Australian birds. Mimicry involves a bird adding the songs of other birds to its own repertoire — and so, not losing its original song. But the Regent honeyeaters we recorded never sang songs that resembled that of their species.

• Crates and Stojanovic are postdoctoral fellows, Langmore is a research fellow, and Heinsohn is professor of evolutionary and conservation biology, all at the Australian National University.

• This article was first published by The Conversation.

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