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City-living transforms male song sparrows into "super fathers"

As cities grow and stretch out over the wilderness, the wildlife they encroach upon is forced to adapt or perish. Birds, with their intrinsic flexibility and adaptability, often find ways to thrive in these transformed landscapes. 

One such species, the song sparrow, is demonstrating an unexpected evolution in its behavior, suggesting that the hustle and bustle of city life might be turning male songbirds into more attentive parents.

Focus of the study

Historically, numerous bird species that have made urban areas their home have displayed heightened levels of aggression. 

The increase in aggression is typically attributed to the need to defend their territories, especially since city-living sparrows face fewer encounters with their kind due to reduced species density. 

This has led to the interesting phenomenon of urban song sparrows displaying consistently stronger territorial aggression than their countryside counterparts.

A recent study led by Dr. Samuel Lane of North Dakota State University and conducted at the Sewall Lab at Virginia Tech delved into the potential ripple effects of this urban-induced aggression on the parental care exhibited by male birds. 

Unexpected behavior 

“Male songbirds in temperate zones are thought to reduce parental care when they are more aggressive. Yet in this study, we show that urban male song sparrows provided more care for their young,” said Dr. Lane.

“Against our expectations, we found that they visited nests more frequently and were more successful parents than rural males.”

This is a surprising revelation, suggesting that these city-residing birds are breaking the expected behavior molds.

Prioritizing parental care

In their quest to understand these ‘super songbirds,’ the research team theorized that if these urban male song sparrows were investing more energy and time into defending their territories, they would have lesser bandwidth to tend to their offspring. 

This could mean that these birds might be compromising on parental care for the sake of territorial defense, potentially affecting their young’s survival rates.

However, after observing six specific sites in south-west Virginia, which had recently witnessed urban expansion, over four breeding seasons, the researchers discovered an outcome that contradicted their initial hypothesis. 

Super dads

Urban male sparrows not only visited their nests with higher frequency than their rural counterparts but also commenced their nestling feeding routines earlier in the day. 

“It turns out urban males are super males – able to defend their territories and care for their young.”

Yet, urban life isn’t without its challenges. The research highlighted increased instances of brood parasitism in the city, where birds like the brown-headed cowbird exploit the nests of other species for their egg-laying. 

This can hamper the growth and survival of the rightful nest inhabitants. However, the silver lining for these urban birds is the notably lower rates of nest predation, which boosts their overall nesting success.

Benefits of city living

Dr. Lane emphasized the counter-intuitive nature of their findings, noting, “It is often assumed that urban areas are more challenging for wild animals. Our study adds to growing evidence that certain species of songbirds even benefit from living in urban environments when there is sufficient green space for them to find food and nest locations.”

While this research has shed light on the intriguing adaptations of the song sparrow in urban settings, it’s crucial to remember that these findings might not be universally applicable. Different species and varying degrees of urbanization can lead to unique behavioral outcomes.

The hope is that these insights will guide future city planning efforts to cultivate urban ecosystems that not only accommodate but actively nurture their wild inhabitants.

The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution


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