Singing Like A Bird

Singing like a bird is a phrase used to describe the dulcet tones of a favorite performer or the confession of an arrested felon depending on which movie one is watching. But singing like a bird is not an easy feat. Birdsong is various and unique among varieties of birds. It is learnt and perfected as our avian friends grow up.

The complexities and subtleties are remarkable, as is human speech and both bird and human have to learn. The question grabbing Moorman et al’s attention in last weeks Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was are we just bird brains when it comes down to learning to chat (1)?

Young babies babble and coo before they learn to talk and whilst they are learning to do this the activity takes place in the left side of the brain in a couple of specific places – one at the front and one at the rear. These spots are where the memory builds on the meaningless babbling to progress into colorful language by the time late teenage is achieved.

What about our birdbrain friends, do they have equivalent areas?  A group of zebra finches were raised and fed pre-recorded songs in hour-long concerts. By the time of the tests, the youngsters were just beginning to learn from their dad’s song, so they were on their way by the time they had a choice of repertoire.

After trying to learn, their brains were examined and the neuronal activation recorded in different regions of the brain. The results were rather like the human result. It all happened on the left side mainly in a couple of regions.

It seems that we humans have a lot in common when we’re learning to speak with birds learning to sing. In this respect we are different from the other non-human primates. So singing like a bird is not something that a Bonobo will do.


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