Remember Scientist Who Decoded Birdsong

birds paradise

Target: Dr. Peter Marler

Goal: Remember scientist who changed the way we look at birds and the natural world

In the 1950s, it was believed that animal behavior was controlled by rigid rules defined by genetically determined instinct. This old belief was shattered when animal behaviorist Peter Marler showed convincingly that birds didn’t spew random birdsong, but their noises actually had purpose and meaning. He proved to the entire world that animals had the ability to learn, shattering the ideology of that time. Peter Marler has since passed away, but his work should be remembered.

A British-born animal behaviorist, Peter Marler showed the world that birdsong didn’t just have purpose, but there were even different dialects in different regions. Birdsong was used to alert other birds to a predator approaching their territory, or to summon reinforcements to fend off predators near their nest. This new belief earned Dr. Marler followers in the field of ethology, or animal behavior and it shattered many of the beliefs of that time. He showed that birds are able to learn from each other, much like humans.

Dr. Marler was able to extrapolate his findings due to new technological advances at the time of his work. The portable tape recorder and the sonic spectrograph, allowed him to record and see the varying frequencies of birdsong while he was out in the field. By observing the curves of ink on paper, Dr. Marler was able to determine frequency, modulation, and pitch song of various bird songs. It was through these findings that he discovered that some groups of birds had only a handful of birdsong, and others had as many as one hundred. Some had calls for roosting, mating, territory-making, warning of danger, and summoning help to fend off predators.

Peter Marler went on to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, Rockafeller University, and University of California, Davis, where he was an emeritus professor until he died on July 5th, 2014 in Winters, California. This man brought a new line of thinking to ethology, and his methods have greatly influenced not just his field, but the entire world. Remember him for his significant contributions.


Dear Dr. Peter Marler,

I am writing this letter to both thank and remember you for your contributions to ethology. In the 1950s, the belief was that animals had an instinctive, almost robotic, method of reacting to their environment. You instead brought the hypothesis that animals could learn and communicate with one another. This revolutionary line of thinking brought you followers, and you actually proved your hypothesis.

Your findings have significantly influenced not just your field of study, but the entire world as well. Humans now have a stronger bond with animals, and it is thanks to your research. Your legacy in ethology lives on, and I thank you for your contributions.


[Your Name Here]

Photo credit: cuatrok77 via Wikimedia Commons

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