All Songbirds Evolved In Australia (And They Love The Sweet Stuff)

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 08, 2021

The Atlantic’s Ed Yong is one of our great biology writers. He recently won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s equally illuminating and much more fun to read him write about tapeworms or some other more benign form of life.

In this case, it’s about songbirds, which have two unusual things in common besides their love of song: they all evolved to detect and eat sugar in the form of sap and nectar [and did so in a way different from hummingbirds, who also love the sweet stuff], and they all did this in Australia, and from there spread out all over the world.

Songbirds probably evolved sweet perception about 30 million years ago, when Australia was much wetter. As the climate dried, the soils became poorer and the eucalyptus trees expanded. The forests abounded with new sources of sugar such as manna, which the songbirds were already primed to find and exploit. Perhaps the extra energy from these abundant calories allowed them to migrate over long distances and travel to other continents. Perhaps they could thrive in their new homes by finding flowers that were already baiting insects with nectar. “They are the most successful group of birds,” Eisthen told me. “You have to wonder how much of their success is due to this hidden talent, which allows them to invade new niches and feed on food sources that other animals are not exploiting.” …

Meanwhile, Sushma Reddy, an ornithologist at the University of Minnesota, points out that hummingbirds, songbirds, and parrots, three groups of birds with lots of nectar-eating species, “are also the same lineages that have convergently evolved vocal learning”—the ability to make new songs and sounds after listening to other individuals. Could these traits be related? Perhaps there’s a hidden connection between the sugary riches of Australia’s forests and the beautiful tunes that fill the air of every continent—between sweetness of palate and sweetness of voice.

Side note: Ed mentions in a parenthetical here that “fans of the board game Wingspan and its Oceania expansion will be familiar with the importance of nectar to Australian birds.” I, in fact, was not familiar with the board game Wingspan or any expansions thereof, so I looked it up:

You are bird enthusiasts—researchers, bird watchers, ornithologists, and collectors—seeking to discover and attract the best birds to your network of wildlife preserves. Each bird extends a chain of powerful combinations in one of your habitats (actions). These habitats focus on several key aspects of growth:

  • Gain food tokens via custom dice in a birdfeeder dice tower
  • Lay eggs using egg miniatures in a variety of colors
  • Draw from hundreds of unique bird cards and play them

The winner is the player with the most points after 4 rounds.

Also, apparently it’s a card-based game, but is also available for computers via Steam. The more you know!