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Birds live longer in the city, but what does it mean for us?

City birds live longer and reproduce less, ASU visiting researcher finds.
April 14, 2017

ASU visiting scientist research shows differences between urban, rural house finches and finds human parallels

Cities are slowing the pace of life for birds — and maybe humans.

A visiting scientist at Arizona State University is investigating why some birds adapt so well to life in cities, and how urban living affects them.

“I’m studying urbanization using birds as a model species to understand evolutionary processes that are triggered by cities popping up all over the world,” said Tuul Sepp, a postdoctoral researcher visiting from Estonia.

Many species of birds don’t like urban environments and don’t adapt to them well. Other species thrive in cities. One of them is the house finch.

Sepp is studying what makes the house finch able to adapt to city life so well. Do urban and rural house finches differ? And, on a longer scale, what evolutionary changes might we expect to see as house finches continue to live in cities?

“If we understand how urbanization affects house finches, maybe we can make some general assumptions even of how urbanization affects humans, because we are also an animal species moving into cities,” she said.

There are curious parallels between birds and what is observed in humans. Birds live longer in cities. They have better survival rates. The same is true for people; they have fewer accidents and better access to health care, for example. If cities make life easier, they can also induce other changes. Birds have fewer chicks in cities, for instance.

“This could be because they are living longer, and they know that they will have another chance,” Sepp said. “They don’t have to put out everything they have in the first breeding season.”

Rural people have more children than urban folks, too.

“Could it be because they’re expecting in an evolutionary sense an increased risk of dying?” she said. “That’s a speculative parallel I’m going on here.”

Urban birds have fewer parasites and invest less in feather coloration. More color shows off for potential mates, but it’s also an investment in reproduction, because they can’t use the pigments in their feathers for other body functions.

“This is what I’m testing here: that cities actually slow the life of birds, and maybe also for humans,” Sepp said. “Urban birds invest more in their health, and rural birds invest more in reproduction.”

Putting all this together — longer life span, smaller reproductive success, increased investment in self-maintenance as opposed to reproduction, all happening in cities — is a novel theory.

The first year of the study will be conducted at ASU. Sepp has placed nesting boxes on the downtown and Tempe campuses for urban samples, and at South Mountain Park and in Estrella Mountain Regional Park for rural samples. The second year of the study will be conducted in Estonia, a completely different environment.

Sepp is conducting the study out of Kevin McGraw’s lab. McGrawMcGraw is in the School of Life Sciences, which is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. is an integrative behavioral ecologist who studies the colors of birds to understand the costs, benefits and evolution of visual signals. He has been conducting a long-term study on urban impacts to birds since 2008.

Sepp’s study is funded by the European Commission's Horizon 2020 project, a European Union research and innovation program that supports basic and applied research and development and technological innovation across a wide range of disciplines.

Top photo: Tuul Sepp, a postdoctoral researcher visiting from Estonia, studies house finches like this nestling from her nest box at South Mountain Park in Phoenix. She says cities appear to be slowing the life of the house finches she has observed. It could be true of humans, too, she said. Photo courtesy of Tuul Sepp/ASU

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Q&A: ASU professor invites us to imagine a world without classical music

ASU professor Roger Mantie discusses importance, future of classical music.
April 14, 2017

Future of classical music is 'million-dollar question,' but ASU poised to answer with hundreds of concerts, recitals

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ASU School of Music Professor Roger Mantie

The future of classical music is anyone’s guess, but Arizona State University professor Roger Mantie invites us to consider a world without it.

“Imagine movies or video games without their classical music backgrounds,” Mantie said. “Star Wars without the John Williams soundtrack? Unthinkable!” 

ASU plays host to around 700 classical recitals in its concert halls each year, with students and visiting musicians delivering performances free and open to the public where they expand their creativity and hone their craft.  

To learn more, ASU Now reached out to Mantie, who teaches in the School of Music in the Herberger Institute of Art and Design and has performed professionally as both a jazz and classical saxophonist

Question: What makes classical music so important in today's society?

A: That’s a really loaded question. Every kind of music is important to those who love their music — i.e., pretty much everyone. In that sense, I don’t think we can say that classical music, or more precisely, Western classical music, is any more or less important than any other kind of music. In some senses, classical music is and always has been a “niche” art form, but to describe it only in terms of its popularity misses the point.

If we try to imagine a world without classical music, I think we can begin to have an idea of just how embedded it is in Western culture. Imagine movies or video games without their classical music backgrounds, for example. Star Wars without the John Williams soundtrack? Unthinkable! What kind of an impoverished world would we be living in without our concert halls, symphony orchestras, opera companies and so on?

Classical music isn't important because it is “better” than other musics, which it isn’t, but because of what it represents: a very special form of human engagement that tests the limits of the human imagination and possibility, both in terms of its performative and aesthetic aspects.

Q: What about those performative and aesthetic aspects do you find so intriguing?

A: There are all sorts of historically-derived norms and practices having to do with enculturation, training, relationships between musicians and audiences, formal reflexivity in the musical material and so on. These are not unique to classical music per se, but classical music’s heritage is vast and rich. I’m personally less interested in “preserving” these things (the “museum of musical works”) than in continuing to innovate and engage in the spirit of community and belonging.

Q: ASU often hosts student recitals at the school's concert hall. Can you explain what exactly those are? 

A: With up to five stages regularly in use, the School of Music presents around 700 concerts and recitals per year. Some of these are by larger ensembles, but the vast majority are by individual students (undergraduate and graduate) as part of their degree program. Most music students typically have to perform at least one solo recital, i.e., a performance of usually 30–90 minutes, made of several musical works they have studied during the year.

As one of many “best kept secrets” at ASU, these are free and open to the public. The quality is very high, often comparable to what you might hear on professional stages — keeping in mind that many School of Music students already perform professionally. Anyone could go to the School of Music almost any night of the week during the academic year and find some sort of performance to attend. 

Q: What do you see the future of classical music looking like? 

A: This is the million-dollar question in the classical music world right now. People with a vested interest in classical music, notably classical musicians themselves, have been asking questions about the future for quite some time. The question has become increasingly pressing due, in part, to the collapse of revenue streams from recorded music in the 21st century, something that has affected all working musicians regardless of genre.

The broader question, however, speaks not to popularity — arguably classical music has never really been “popular” in the broad sense — but to the vitality of any given musical practice. My personal opinion is that classical musicians in the 20th century were caught in a dilemma: what people wanted to hear were things like Schumann piano sonatas, Verdi operas, Beethoven string quartets, or Mozart symphonies, not “new” music. As a result, classical music stopped being a living, breathing art form.

The silver lining, as I see it, is that classical musicians in the 21st century are being more creative than ever. There are so many exciting things going on in the classical music world right now. My prediction is that the musical landscape of the 21st century will be defined by how it reinvented musical engagement of all types.

Q: Have you always been immersed in classical music? What first drew you to the genre? 

A: I learned to play the saxophone through the school band program. I grew up playing all sorts of music and didn’t really privilege one kind over the other. That’s something I try to promote with my own children. We listen to and play every style of music we can.

Most university music programs are based on the Western classical tradition. As a result, I was fully immersed in classical music. I often wonder if I would have loved classical music as much as I do if I were not so thoroughly immersed in it. 

Find upcoming recitals on the ASU Events website at And don't forget to check in at these and other events with Sun Devil Rewards, a free app that connects users to everything ASU. Earn "Pitchforks" for reading ASU news stories, checking in at events, taking polls, playing trivia games and more — and earn prizes that money can't buy (only Pitchforks can!). 

Connor Pelton

Communications Writer , ASU Now