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Low-Voiced Great Tits Keep Females Hooked

Barry White was definitely on to something. Male great tits that use low voices to sing to females keep their mates loyal—and more fertile, new research suggests. In fact, females quickly change their tune when they hear high-pitched songs, sometimes even sneaking away before sunrise to cheat with other, presumably lower-voiced, males. This presents a...

Barry White was definitely on to something. Male great tits that use low voices to sing to females keep their mates loyal—and more fertile, new research suggests.

In fact, females quickly change their tune when they hear high-pitched songs, sometimes even sneaking away before sunrise to cheat with other, presumably lower-voiced, males. This presents a conundrum for the city-dwelling male great tit, which is forced to sing higher, faster, and shorter to be heard above the urban din.

Even though the females can hear them better, these males are not as good at holding onto their mates as might their country brethren that don’t have to compete with traffic noise. (Read a 2006 National Geographic News story on urban great tit songs.)

A great tit. Photograph by Morteza Nemati, My Shot

For their study, Leiden University’s Wouter Halfwerk and colleagues observed early morning courtship songs among male and female great tits in Netherlands‘ Dwingelderveld National Park. The team also played recorded songs to females and then determined the fathers of their chicks born after the experiment. The results, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that males crooned their deepest at the peak of their mate’s fertility, suggesting that the low sounds get females in the mood.

Acoustic stimulation, shall we call it, occurs in other species as well. There’s the female cheetah, who has to be—literally—turned on by the sound of male cheetah’s bark, or she won’t ovulate. Likewise, male fallow deer that make the deepest groaning noises tend to get the doe.

Great tits, a relatively common bird, also get their fair share of research attention—and media attention, thanks to their, um, titillating moniker. We reported on a 2008 study, for instance, that found that global warming has caused the birds to shift their mating schedules in England, which are timed to coincide with caterpillar availability for their babies.

And, there’s the study that showed the flashiest male great tits have the strongest sperm. That’s because, in males with more carotenoid, and thus more color, the sperm is better able to withstand an onslaught of damaging free radicals—and females seem to know it.

What about humans in all this? Some scientists have thus speculated that the complex larynx in humans first evolved as a way for men to attract women, who also tend to prefer deeper-voiced men.

Check out more weird coverage on National Geographic News.

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Meet the Author

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.