Not Your Father's Song: The Next Generation of Birds Chooses Its Music

By Milius, Susan | Science News, November 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Not Your Father's Song: The Next Generation of Birds Chooses Its Music


Milius, Susan, Science News


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They're teenagers, and they're off somewhere listening to music. Fortunately for Chris Templeton, these are song sparrows, so be can put radio transmitters on them to figure out where they go.

He's guessing--remember he's working with birds--that the young song sparrows have slipped off to go to school. Or to wherever it is in the shrubbery that they find tutors and learn to sing.

Lab studies show that song sparrows, and probably half of known bird species, have to learn the species-specific songs they need for communicating in romance or war. Birdsong, Templeton says, "is a really important model system for understanding how humans learn language." The avian descendants of dinosaurs evolved their communication independently from people. So the aspects of learning that turned out the same, as well as those that turned out different, intrigue scientists studying the brain and language.

Birds learn songs, but there's no evidence that other birds teach them--at least not in the human sense of doing something special, such as singing extra slowly in front of the chicks. Young birds do seem to listen to adults, though, and somehow end up learning a song from certain grown-ups while ignoring others.

A human might be tempted to conclude that finding the grown-up models would be easy, that a baby bird picks up the songs of its parent.

Don't bet on it, Templeton says.

To study who learns what from whom, he and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle have slipped into the shrubbery too. They've lugged their high-tech tracking equipment after song sparrows in the city's Discovery Park, and followed when the youngsters roamed into Seattle's streets, backyards and a military base. Templeton has been threatened with calls to the police, stonewalled by residents who don't answer doors for strangers carrying weird gear and presented with the limp body of a study subject, pried away, too late, from the family cat. "Most research on song learning has been done in the lab--and there are good reasons for this" Templeton says of his travails.

Yet he and other song specialists are persevering. Lab work studied the pupils, Now it's time to study the schools.

What's to learn

Only a few animals need schooling to communicate with their own kind. Most of the trilling, roaring, squeaking and chattering out in the wild is instinctual and develops independent of teaching as animals grow up. So far biologists have found that the need to listen to experts to make intelligible sounds in the right context shows up only in certain birds, bats, primates and whales and their relatives.

Among primates, only people depend on learning for such a vital skill as producing sounds for communication, Even in birds, only some of the species learn. Plenty of parrots and hummingbirds do, and likewise many of what are called oscine songbirds, including the warblers, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes and so on. In the past decade, some dogma-smashing research has shown that bellbirds, which don't belong in any of the established groups of bird learners, pick up vocalizations distinctive to their home regions: quacks, whistles or a noise that bird-watchers transcribe as "bonk."

Before getting to the question of where all these young learners pick up their communication skills, Jill Soha of Ohio State University's Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics in Columbus points out that researchers are still sorting out what learning means among birds. This fall she's writing up an experiment about what education does for grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum).

Out in the wild, a neighborhood of grown-up males sounds like a grasshopper sparrow United Nations. Each male's songs are recognizable as coming from its species: a few introductory notes and a long buzz. Each bird tweaks these elements, however, altering pitch, timing and other details into such variety that Soha can record a neighborhoods songs and find no males singing tunes similar enough to suggest a shared tutor. …

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