Last year, South Korea issued a tender for a new stereo system. Not any old stereo system either. The South Koreans offered US$16 million in exchange for sound audible 10 kilometers away. This was in retaliation to nuclear testing in North Korea. The plan? Play “Gangnam Style” on continuous loop across the Demilitarized Zone. Needless to say, North Korea has loudspeakers of its own.
All this is very natural. “A common feature of aggressive signaling systems is the ability to direct a signal to a particular rival,” according to an article by Rindy Anderson and others. Their paper is about song matching in sparrows. They go on to say that sound wars are best waged with similar signals. In the case of Korea, the South blasts K-pop alongside propaganda. With K-pop banned in the North, Pyongyang relies on broadcasts dissing the South. When it comes to song matching, even a partial match is better than nothing.
Birds use songs for more than disputing territories. Many birds will enter into duets with their mates. In some species, this is no more than singing at the same time. Others, like the Happy Wren, take the double act further. The song of each bird consists of phrases separated by pauses. The male and female coordinate their songs so that the phrases of one falls within the pauses of the other. It’s as though they are singing alternate lines.
Christopher Templeton and colleagues studied Happy Wrens in Mexico. The researchers were interested in the response of female wrens to intruding females. Would they try to drown out the interloper? Or would they rather support their man in seeing off the invasion?
To test this, the scientists trapped male Happy Wrens in the evening. The next morning, they played recordings of the male’s song to his mate. They combined this with the songs of a strange female. For the most part, female Happy Wrens formed duets with their mates. The researchers conclude that duets reinforce cooperation in this species. Females signal their support for their mate as well as their strong bond when a rival female appears.
After the experiment, the males were released. According to the article, all immediately sang duets with their mates. This shared love of singing may explain why the wrens are so happy.
Perhaps the Koreans should try to find common ground for their stereos. After all, Kim Jong Un founded the Moranbong Band, described by some as a modern pop band. Many of their songs praised Kim Jong Un, but at least this shows that he’s not opposed to music.
A sound war is better than a nuclear war, but can’t we do better? Imagine a world in which North and South Korea duet in support of each other, rather than waging a sound war. The combination may even silence the tweets from the White House.
Featured image of a Happy Wren
Templeton, C.N., Ríos-Chelén, A.A., Quirós-Guerrero, E., Mann, N.I., Slater, P.J.B. 2012. Female happy wrens select songs to cooperate with their mates rather than confront intruders. Biology Letters 9(1).