Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Do Songbirds Learn Their Mating Melodies? Scientists Reveal Clues

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How Do Songbirds Learn Their Mating Melodies? Scientists Reveal Clues

Article excerpt

Human babies seem to have a natural knack for languages. Fluency in any of the world's 6,500 languages comes within the first few years of life, without much apparent effort.

A recent study of how songbirds learn their melodies seeks to shine light on the cognitive processes through which young birds learn and imitate vocal communication - insights which could lead to a better understanding of the development of human speech, as well.

"A bird's baby song is really immature. There's no clear structure - it's more like a baby babbling, but then it becomes structured, like the tutor song [as the bird gets older]," Yoko Yazaki-Sugiyama, co-author of the study published in Nature Communications Tuesday, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

The male zebra finch learns a complex song from his father, or tutor, in order to attract a female finch. Dr. Yazaki-Sugiyama, an assistant professor at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in Japan, and Shin Yanagihara, a researcher at the same school, were the first to identify the neurons in zebra finches' brains associated with the auditory memory of the father's song.

The pair studied young zebra finches in the critical period of development, when brain circuits are considered very flexible, to examine the impact of auditory experiences, particularly listening to a tutor's song.

Zebra finches begin memorizing their tutor's song between 20 and 50 days after hatching. At first, they just listen and make crude vocalizations, but by 90 days old they develop their own distinctive song, based off their tutor's song, according to a previous study from scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana.

The evolution from silence to babbling to a distinctive melody is apparently made possible by the experience of listening to the bird's father's song to form a memory. Once the birds have the tutor's song memorized, they try to mimic it.

The researchers monitored the neuronal auditory response of both tutored and isolated birds listening to their own song, their tutor's song, other zebra finches' songs, and different songbirds' songs. …

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