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’It’s getting hot in here,’ According to one Smoking Chick

by admin on December 1, 2016

One little bird called the Zebra Finch has learned not to run from the heat, but to embrace it. Zebra finches are little gray Australian birds that live in the harsh climate of the outback. These little guys have been discovered to sing what is known as either the heat song or the incubation song. Interestingly, this rhythmic and high-pitched song prepares their chicks for our warming climate. The embryos inside their egg encasement “listen” to their parents as they sing to them, and develop accordingly.

While teaching at Deakin University in Australia, Mylene Mariett and Kate Buchanan wrote a research paper called “Prenatal acoustic communication programs offspring for high post hatching temperatures in a songbird,” all about the zebra finch’s incubation song. They found the song was solely for the soon-to-be hatchlings because the finches would only sing when the mate was away from the nest. The only time they made these sounds were when the chicks were five days or less from hatching and when it was 78° F or higher. Buchanan wrote, “This acoustic signal is potentially being used to program the development of offspring.” Mariette and Buchanan posted their discovery in Science Journal once they finished testing their theory.

The Deakin University pair incubated 166 eggs after taking them from their nests. They split the eggs up and incubated them all at 100° F. When they were 3-5 days away from hatching they started playing finch chatter. Half of the eggs heard the normal parent calls and the other half heard the heat song. After they completed hatching, they were placed back in their nests and recorded. Although all of the chicks were born looking similar in weight and size, the differences between the two groups started appearing almost immediately.

The embryos in the eggs that heard the incubation song were not actively listening, but absorbing the song unconsciously. This affected the physiological results of the finches. They grew more slowly and stayed smaller in size. Birds that are smaller have an advantage over larger birds because they don’t experience as much damage to their cells due to a change in thermoregulation (a process that maintains the bird’s internal body temperature). This is also known as oxidative stress. As the finch’s internal body temperature was able to regulate itself better, the smaller birds adapted to warmer weather much easier.


When it came to the finches finding their own place to hatch, they would choose to live in a warmer climate. Professor Buchanan said, “Hearing that call before you even hatch affects your development, affects your growth rate, probably affects your vocalization and it affects your behavior and choice 100 or 200 days later when you go to nest yourself.” The finches produced more young than the normal hatchlings and were later able to sing the heat song to their own chicks. As Dr. Mariette stated, “what’s encouraging is that it’s a strategy that the birds use to adjust the growth of their offspring to temperature.” The incubation song prepared them better for the rise of temperature due to global warming.

Zebra finches lay eggs when the weather is right and then try to adjust for the changing climate when the chicks are born. Thus, the incubation song. Humans and song birds are some of the few animals with the brain space adapted specifically for the ability to “sing” or “create music.” Part of these talents include mimicking sounds. It makes sense that the zebra finch with the capacity to create vocal music would create a song to protect their young for the future. Dr. Mariette ends with, “It means that the acoustic environment before birth has more impact than we thought.” This new song is warning not only the young hatchlings about the rising temperature, but the entire world of what is coming.

By Louise Gilbert

Anna Lee Skinner December 6, 2016 at 5:59 pm

I’ve honestly never thought of anything like this before. I know people always talk to their babies and such, but I’ve never fathomed that it actually worked. That fact that this is pretty much scientifically proven is fascinating to me. I also liked your video and thought it went well with your material. This is pretty cool stuff.

Christian T Smith December 6, 2016 at 4:25 pm

I thought that this was just a really cool article. It was interesting both in the information and in how it was written. I thought it was interesting to see that the control group was actually the one with fewer offspring, since the control seems to be the more regular group. I really enjoyed that it considered how this ability might allow for some animals to adapt to climate change.

Catherine Allen December 6, 2016 at 12:02 pm

Such an interesting topic to write about! That is so cool that music can affect this species before they are even born. I thought that your analysis of the university’s experiment was spot on and very well-written. I also like how you hinted about global warming throughout the paper as to show that these birds are also possibly telling us about rising temperatures.

Kailey Hackett December 6, 2016 at 11:22 am

After doing my midterm project on David Rothenberg’s bird song, it was interesting to see your take on it with the Zebra Finch. I thought this article was really well written and I enjoyed reading it. It was super interesting to me that birds can communicate with their eggs and that their songs are more prevalent than we originally thought. Your knowledge and specific instances to back up your claims were very important to establishing credibility and I thought this article was super informative and really cool to read.

Emma Berg December 4, 2016 at 11:12 pm

I like how you took the topics from class such as bird song and took a specific approach with the Zebra Finch. It’s interesting that the bird can communicate with its eggs and can have such a specific purpose in its song. The article shows that this bird song has a direct effect on its young and that bird song in general has more uses than people would have originally thought.

Sarah Chao December 4, 2016 at 12:11 am

Very narrow focus, with strong diction. I enjoyed reading about how birds function and the logistics of the incubation song. It’s so cool how chicks can absorb music unconsciously. Good idea to include the university experiment of incubating zebra finches. You have specific examples that make the article more interesting!

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