Parrots, songbirds, and hummingbirds are known for their ability to learn new sounds. However, a recent study on New Zealand’s smallest bird, the rifleman or titipounamu, suggests that it may also possess a rudimentary version of this talent. Researchers from the University of Auckland have been studying the bird to understand how and when vocal learning evolved in birds.

Traditionally, scientists categorized birds into two groups – those that can learn sounds and those that cannot. However, the study published in the scientific journal Communications Biology challenges this assumption. The researchers found that titipounamu living near each other had strong similarities in their vocal signatures, while close relatives living far apart sounded different. This suggests that the birds may learn their sounds from each other, rather than having innate abilities.

Weighing as much as five or six paper clips, titipounamu live in high-altitude mature native forests, feed on insects, and make high-pitched sounds that are inaudible to some people. They are one of the country’s two surviving native wren species and are considered an evolutionary missing link between songbirds and parrots. The researchers believe that if New Zealand wrens are vocal learners, then the common ancestor of parrots and songbirds may also have had rudimentary learning abilities.

The scientists used various methods to gather evidence of vocal copying, including monitoring the nests of titipounamu, recording feeding calls, and analyzing spectrograms to identify unique vocal signatures. They also collected genetic information from the population and used advanced genetic methods to determine the influence of genetics and social environment on vocal learning.

The study’s findings suggest that vocal learning abilities in birds may be more widespread than previously thought and may exist along a spectrum. This challenges the traditional classification of birds as either vocal learners or non-learners. The researchers liken the birds’ vocal behavior to vocal accommodation in human linguistics, where individuals adjust their ways of speaking in different social settings.

The study was supported by a grant from the Royal Society Te Apārangi Marsden Fund and funding from various organizations. The researchers used a combination of bioacoustics, genetics, behavioral ecology, and field biology to unravel the mysteries of vocal learning in birds. Their findings provide valuable insights into the evolution of vocal learning and communication in animals.

In conclusion, the study on titipounamu sheds light on the complex nature of vocal learning in birds and challenges our understanding of this phenomenon. By studying these tiny New Zealand birds, researchers are uncovering new insights into the evolution of communication in the animal kingdom.