New Zealand Yellowhammers "Speak" with Obsolete Dialects

Debbie Blicher is Senior Producer of Ray Brown's Talkin' Birds.

Our Talkin' Birds Senior Producer, Debbie Blicher, learned to speak Portuguese in the Amazon rainforest outside the city of Manaus, Brazil. The people in that region speak with an accent reminiscent of the 1500's, when Portuguese was first introduced. In other areas of Brazil, the accent has evolved because of influences from other languages, local fads, and the usual linguistic wear and tear, but the people around Manaus use a Portuguese that isn't heard anywhere else. Brazilians outside the Amazon region correct Debbie's accent—once they stop laughing.

Now, research is showing that Yellowhammers in New Zealand  also "speak" with an obsolete accent. A new study published in Ecography indicates that New Zealand Yellowhammers possess some dialects that their cousins in Great Britain no longer use.  

The Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) is a farmland bird native to the United Kingdom, recognizable by means of its bright yellow head. It was introduced to New Zealand in the 1860's and 1870's. The research on their song involved a citizen science project in New Zealand and Great Britain ( coordinated by Pavel Pipek of Charles University in Prague (the first author). Volunteers collected and submitted recordings of singing Yellowhammers with smartphones and cameras. The Prague researchers then compared the patterns of Yellowhammer dialects in Great Britain to those in New Zealand. They discovered that the birds in New Zealand use song structures no longer used in the UK. In fact, the New Zealand birds had almost twice as many dialects as their British relatives.


Pipek's team supposes this shift of dialects has something to do with the processes of the bird's population growth and decline. Over 600 Yellowhammers were introduced to New Zealand in the 1800's, where they reproduced so rapidly that they became pests, taking their songs wherever they went. Meanwhile, the Yellowhammer population in the UK dwindled, and some dialects died out with them. The result? Dialects are thriving in New Zealand that haven't been heard in the UK for up to 150 years—"a living archive," as co-author Dr. Mark Eaton says.

So next time you hear a Yellowhammer with an obsolete accent, don't laugh, and don't correct it. It's just saving a song from extinction, okay? Sheesh.