Mockingbird research by Dave Gammon highlighted in Scientific American column

The column by David Rothenberg, who tapped into Gammon's expertise about mockingbird songs, was published by the esteemed scientific publication on June 18.

A new column in Scientific American detailing the complexity of mockingbird songs highlights research by Professor of Biology Dave Gammon.

Northern mockingbird in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn (Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The column, “Mockingbirds Are Better Musicians Than We Thought,” was penned by David Rothenberg, distinguished professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who partnered with Gammon on his research. Rothenberg and Gammon examined how mockingbirds don’t just copy tunes from other birds but take a more complex approach to crafting their songs.

“You’ll hear that this virtuoso bird isn’t just copying other species’ tunes,” Rothenberg writes. “He’s sampling them like a DJ and transposing, bending, tweaking them into his own quite deliberate form. We can always tell it’s a mockingbird, not because of his copying, but because of his unique and specific way of composing music out of the material he hears in the world around him.

Rothenberg turned to Gammon for his expertise on the form and structure of mockingbird songs, which Gammon has studied extensively around Elon’s campus. “And after you’ve listened to them for just a minute,” Gammon said in the column, “you’ve heard 20 to 25 different song phrases and they’re still pulling out new ones. If you listened to them for 10 minutes, you might be hard pressed to recognize anything that was repeated. The diversity is huge, and it’s so loud, so conspicuous. I always felt they were composing with these diverse sounds, and that the organization of their song phrases might be perceived by humans.”

Their research was initially published in May in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology. Rothenberg’s column in Scientific American can be found here.