Songbirds develop super muscles for dawn chorus

Mozart is said to have been inspired by the repertoire of musical notes produced by his pet starling. Now scientists can explain how the songbird is able to control such a varied voice.

A study has found that the vocal muscles of an European starling can contract a hundred times faster than the blink of a human eye, which is why the bird can handle so many sound modulations with such speed and precision.

"We discovered that the European starling – found throughout Eurasia and North America – and the zebra finch found in Australia and Indonesia, control their songs with the fastest-contracting muscle type yet described," said Coen Elemans, a biologist at the University of Utah. "Superfast muscles were previously known only from the sound-producing organs of rattlesnakes, several fish and a dove. We now have shown that songbirds also evolved this extreme performance muscle type, suggesting these muscles – once thought to be extraordinary – are more common than previously believed," Dr Elemans said.

Birdsong is one of the wonders of the natural world and has been an inspiration to writers and poets as well as musicians and composers. The scientists found that it is made possible because the songbird's vocal muscles can turn individual elements of a song on and off at a rate of 250 times a second.

Dr Elemans added: "Songbirds use complex song to communicate with one another. By having extraordinary muscles, birds have a more precise control of their voice and can actively change the volume and frequency of their song faster than previously thought physically possible," he said.

The study is published in the online journal Public Library of Science and was carried out in collaboration with scientists working at the University of Southern Denmark.