Songbirds remember tunes dad sang, researchers find
and World Science staff
Researchers say they have located a place in the brain where songbirds store memories of their parents’ songs. This could shed light on human language, they add, as humans and songbirds are among the few animals, along with whales and dolphins, that learn to vocalize by imitating caregivers.
In a paper published this week, the scientists said report that songbirds store the memory of caregivers’ songs in a part of the brain involved in hearing.
This suggests the auditory version of the caregiver’s song is stored first, and that it may serve to guide vocal learning, said David Vicario of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, one of the researchers.
Independent evidence, he added, shows something similar may “be part of the mechanism that allows kids to learn any human language if they start early enough.”
His group’s findings appeared in the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The team worked with zebra finches, tiny songbirds from Australia.
The father contributes equally to childcare in zebra finch families and does all the singing, Vicario said.
“In everyday English, ‘song’ and ‘call’ mean the same thing, but in scientific language, they’re different,” Vicario said. “Calls communicate information about food and predators, and males and females both use them,” he said. “A song is a vocal behavior used in male-male interactions and in courtship of females, and in most songbird species, only the male sings.”
A young zebra finch hears his father’s song, remembers and imitates it. At first, the bird’s efforts are clumsy. But eventually, the young bird manages an almost complete copy of his parent’s song that includes some improvised elements.
Young birds also remember and imitate the songs of songbirds from other species, if the songs are similar enough, the researchers said. But when offered a choice between recorded songs from their own species and those of other species, the young birds pick their own species.
The researchers found that songbird brain cells in a region known as the forebrain, toward the front of the brain gave off strong signals in response to the “teachers’” songs.
“If the processes of learning in young birds and human babies have formal similarities, which it now seems they do, then studying the songbird brain can tell us how this imitation trick is actually performed by cells in the brain,” Vicario said. “The bird’s brain provides a laboratory for studying how memories that underlie vocal learning are stored in the brain and how the stored memories are used to guide the development of vocalization.
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