Teenage birds sing better in female’s presence

Sunday, February 27, 2011

WASHINGTON - Teenage male songbirds seem to improve their performance in the presence of female birds, new research says.

The finding sheds light on how social cues could offer insights into the way humans learn speech and other motor skills, and opens the way for rehabilitating people with brain injuries.

Like humans, songbirds learn to sing by first listening to adult birds and then mimicking those through trial-and-error. Their initial vocalizations are akin to the babbling of babies, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports.

Until now, scientists and bird watchers alike have thought that young birds could only produce immature songs, according to a University of California statement.

However, in a process that involved recording and studying the male zebra finch’s song, they discovered that in the presence of a female, the birds sang much better than when they were practising alone.

“We were very surprised by the finding,” said senior study author Allison Doupe, professor of psychiatry and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco.

“The birds picked the best version of the song that they could possibly perform and they sang it over and over again. They sounded almost like adults. It turns out that teenagers know more than they’re telling us.”

The finding could lead to a better understanding of the brain mechanisms supporting language acquisition as well as many other learned behaviors, said Doupe.

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