Birdsong is a learned and complex sweetness

If January has you longing for warmer temperatures and the sweet sounds of birdsong, consider reframing your expectations: perhaps the birds are in training now, in preparation for spring. 

Songbirds learn how to court from dad

Songbirds listen to their fathers' courtship songs and as they do, changes occur in their brain circuitry. They go from listening to knowing the songs themselves.

Neuroscientists at New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center reveal how birds learn songs through observation and practice. Their study was published Jan. 15 in Science, a journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Researchers tracked brain cell activity in young zebra finches as they learned songs from a mentoring parent over several weeks and discovered that just listening to a father's song turns on the same brain cell networks that the young bird will use later to sing the song once learned. 

"While we have known for decades that adolescent songbirds only learn their songs if exposed to a tutor, we believe our study is the first to detail changes in nerve networks that make this mastery possible in maturing brains," said senior study investigator Michael Long, PhD.

Songbirds’ vocal muscles mimic those of trained opera singers

Becoming an opera singer requires years of training unless, of course, you’re a songbird.

Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. and the University of Southern Denmark in Norway have learned that a songbird’s vocal muscles work like those of human speakers and singers. Indeed, their vocal muscles can change their function to help produce different parameters of sounds, in a manner similar to that of a trained opera singer.

The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience on Oct. 21, 2015.

The researchers measured how the neural activity of Bengalese finches activates the production of a particular sound through the flexing of a particular vocal muscle. The results showed the complex redundancy of the songbird's vocal muscles.

Photo credit: © iStock/kajornyot

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