Battle of the Birds: Accuracy Happy Hours

Eyewire, citizen science, birds, Battle of the Birds, ornithology, cardinal
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

When you hear the dawn chorus of birds, does it all sound like random twitters, or can your ears draw out signals from the noise? Most birds use more than one sound to communicate, with each species’ vocabulary often including multiple simple vocalizations known as “calls,” and multiple complex vocalizations known as “songs.” Each call or song conveys distinct meanings, and there can even be geographic variations to them.

There’s no limit to creativity for some birds: brown thrashers are able to teach each other and preserve more than 1000 songs, and some species like the mockingbird or catbird will mimic other birds, non-avian animals, and even human machinery. Throw in the birds who can imitate human words and associate them with objects, and we have to ask: do birds have actual language?

It turns out the answer depends on how “language” is defined. A good deal of ornithologists, linguists, and cognitive scientists agree that a language must have clear syntax (that is, grammar), and that bird communication hasn’t yet been fully proven to follow syntactic rules; or perhaps it’s that some bird species’ vocalizations follow such rules, but not all of them do. Similarly, researchers typically assume a language should be able to refer symbolically to distinguishable subjects that the listener can interpret with a reasonable degree of clarity, and so far most studies of bird communication haven’t been able to do this. For example, if a starling starts an alarm call about a hawk circling overhead, we don’t necessarily know if the starling is actually saying, “Hey, there’s a hawk!” or saying, “Hey, there’s a predator!” — or maybe just, “Hey, there’s a problem here.” That very ambiguity makes it hard to analyze the alarm call as a linguistic phenomenon.

Nonetheless, even if birds don’t communicate in the same exact way that humans do, the very complexity of their music would take more than a human lifetime to ever memorize and reproduce all species’ unique tweets, trills, warbles, and whistles. This applies in particular to the passerine (perching) birds of the order Passeriformes, and even moreso in the suborder Passeri (the songbirds).

Here’s a little test to give yourself at home, with three songbirds of Massachusetts, where Eyewire HQ is located.

Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)
This little fella is our official state bird and has an iconic alarm call that sounds like chick-a-dee-dee-dee. The more dees at the end, the more serious the situation! Listen here.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
Because of the harsh trill at the end, some people might mix up this widespread bird’s song with the chickadee call above. But the red-winged blackbird isn’t a close relation of the chickadee, and this song is actually for courtship. Listen here.

Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)
This bird’s song starts with a chick-chick but finishes with a very melodious warble. Unlike the above two birds who live here year-round, if you hear this song in Massachusetts that must mean spring is on its way as the bluebird migrates back from down South. Listen here.

How well can you tell these birds’ vocalizations apart? Could you accurately identify any if you heard them in the wild? What about the songs and calls of the northern cardinal, featured at the top of this post? In that spirit, we’re going to hold Accuracy Happy Hours on Eyewire: hone your visual acuity while you also hone your auditory recognition! All times EST:

Session 1 – 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM on 2/15
Session 2 – 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM on 2/16
Session 3 – 10:00 PM to midnight on 2/16

HQ will bestow typical Happy Hour bonuses for your work during each of those time frames, but there’s more than that to earn! Check your in-game notifications to see the full accuracy bonus breakdown.

Mentors: You are still allowed to mentor people during these time windows. Please just use your best judgment as to whether someone is asking you for basic newbie help vs. trying to have you boost their accuracy on cube after cube.

Scythes: Please avoid scything during these time windows. Even though accuracy for this will be retroactively calculated, we would prefer to go with accuracy based on players’ raw tracing. By the time this challenge is scored, don’t worry, admins will have corrected consensus as needed.