December 29, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Birdsong Olympic Training

The singing of a bird is a complex skill that takes rigorous training like that of a top athlete or musician.  Young male birds learn by imitation from their fathers, then hone their skill over months, till their song becomes crystallized in adulthood.  A paper in Nature by two scientists at UC San Francisco reported on experiments on the neurobiology of birdsong,1 and found that even adult birds can still learn to modify their singing based on feedback from the environment.
    It was thought that once a bird’s learned song was memorized, the stereotype was too strong to change.  The scientists were able to get Bengalese finches to sing off key by putting white noise into their environment.  When the noise was removed, their songs returned to normal.  This shows that the childhood memory of the parental song, as well as their own memory of what constitutes normal, allows them to maintain fidelity to the song pattern, while the neurons have enough plasticity to allow adapting to the environment.  A write-up of the paper in Science Daily also noted the tidbit that young males tend to experiment more when females are not around.
    The scientists believe that their findings can help in rehabilitation efforts with human patients who need to re-learn skills lost in aging or injury.  If you can teach an old bird new tricks, then there’s hope for people.

1.  Tumer and Brainard, “Performance variability enables adaptive plasticity of ‘crystallized’ adult birdsong,” Nature

This interesting paper owed nothing to evolutionary theory.  The paper did not mention evolution at all.  The scientists studied a present-day phenomenon, learned something interesting by observation and experimentation, and produced results that may have practical benefits for people.  That’s the way science should be done.  In 2008, let’s sing a good-bye to Darwin: “Nevermore” by The Raven.

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Categories: Birds

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