Besides fire, the overwhelming symbol of this weekend’s blockbuster movie, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is of a steel-colored, mohawked bird with a pointed, hummingbird-like bill who trills melodiously.
Mockingjays are described as a cross between mockingbirds and “jabberjays,” a species developed by the Panem government to imitate human speech and spy on the rebels. The jabberjays eventually mate with mockingbirds to create mockingjays, a bird noted for its songs.
That doesn’t mean that jabberjays aren’t up to their usual mischief: Catching Fire features a scene in which Katniss Everdeen and new tribute Finnick Odair are tortured by the painful screams of their loved ones, screams that turn out to be created by jabberjays.
But before you start casting suspicious glances at any birds innocently tweeting nearby, get your genetically engineered bird questions answered here with the help of Sushma Reddy of Loyola University Chicago, an expert in bird evolution.
Is a genetically engineered bird like the jabberjay possible?
“Genetic engineering is a loose word,” Reddy said, pointing out that genetically engineered birds are within the realm of possibility, but that’s not the most interesting genetic question regarding birds.
In fact, it’s about where birds come from: Why do they have feathers? Why no teeth? Why dinosaur-like limbs? Research has revealed that birds are descendants of dinosaurs and that their bills indicate everything from what types of food they can consume to their ability to babble.
As for a type of bird that could double as a spy? Maybe not yet.
Could a genetically engineered bird mate with a “normal” bird?
“Oh sure!” Reddy said. In the wild, natural selection plays a role, but even if there is no attraction, lab mating could occur to produce the next mockingjay.
How does bird speech evolve?
“The ability to learn song or speech has happened only twice in bird evolution,” Reddy said, pointing to hummingbirds, parrots, and passerines (commonly known as songbirds) as speech birds. “How birds learn or change their song is controlled both by genes and by their environment.”
The evolution of birds is a bit of a mystery, and the exact time period is a source of controversy among avian scientists, who are “still trying to figure it out,” Reddy said.
Hummingbirds were the first to be able to vocalize, followed by their distant cousins, parrots and passerines. Beyond that, much of bird speech evolution is murky.
“We think [the ability to vocalize occurred] between 65 to 110 million years ago,” she said. “We’re not really sure exactly what the changes were, but we think it has to do with how the brain functioned, since all birds can vocalize, but the ability to learn to do it in different ways is what sets them apart.”
Can birds truly imitate human speech?
That scene from “Catching Fire” where jabberjays imitate the voices of humans convincingly enough to make Katniss and Finnick think their relatives are in trouble? Not too far from the truth—birds that can speak are surprisingly realistic imitators.
“Some bird species in cities can mimic sounds of car alarms, sirens, and even dog barks,” Reddy said. “Sometimes they pick up songs they can hear. Pet parrots will pick up phrases and sounds.”
Why do birds speak?
“Mostly, it’s for mating,” Reddy says, with birdcalls acting as a way for species not only to recognize each other but also to attract a potential mate.
Bird songs can act as a way to find lost chicks too. “Often, parents and their chicks will have calls that are specific,” Reddy said. “The chicks will call, and the parents will know where to go to feed them.”
Chirping isn’t always sweet—it can act as a siren too.
“It’s a matter of coevolution,” Reddy explained. “Individual species will warn each other about a predator that’s around.”
But that’s about all researchers can figure out when it comes to these original tweeters. Birdsong may have more complex meanings, but a lot of times it seems like “they just like to sing,” says Reddy. “It’s a way of showing off and communicating.”
How are birds evolving now?
Birds are responding to climate change, Reddy said. “Traits that can handle the erratic weather patterns and warming of the world are being selected for. We’ve already started to notice different patterns of migration.”
As they say in the Hunger Games, may the odds be ever in birds’ favor.
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