Mike Birkhead Associates - People

Attenborough's Wonder of Song

Directors Beth Jones and Mike Birkhead

Mike Birkhead

When David Attenborough was born, the science of song had, relatively recently, been transformed by Charles Darwin's theory of sexual selection: singing is dangerous as it reveals the singer's location to predators, but it also offers the male a huge reward, the chance to attract a female and pass on genes to the next generation. Males sing. Females don't: they listen and choose the best singers. Beautiful and complex male songs are the acoustic equivalent of a peacock's tail.

But now new science in the field of birdsong is transforming those long-held ideas. Scientists are discovering that, in fact, in the majority of all songbird species, females sing - and it's only now they are being properly heard. As Professor John Krebs from the University of Oxford, a pioneer in the science of song, says: "When I was doing my research [in the 1970s] it was basically assumed that it's the male that sings and the female that doesn't. Maybe that's because most of the scientists were males who were studying birdsong." But, as Professor Naomi Langmore from the Australian National University adds: "Now there's a new generation of female scientists coming through studying birdsong all around the world and discovering that actually female song is very common and occurs in more species than not." It is a revelation in the world of birdsong. Lyrebird scientists Anastasia Helen Dalziell and Victoria Austin reveal some remarkable secrets about the worlds' most talked about songster and Roger Payne tells us how humpback whale song saved the species from certain extinction.

And how many more exciting discoveries are there to make about song? What else will be revealed about these sounds which, although enchanting to our ears, are, in fact, far more than that: they are marvellous examples of the spectacular survival strategies that animals have developed in order to stay alive. "That," Attenborough says, "is why I will never cease to wonder at the beautiful sounds we call song."

To find out more and see exclusive photos from Behind The Scenes, click here.

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