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Study Looks at How Birds Learn to Sing

Study Looks at How Birds Learn to Sing

Posted - Dec. 8, 2004 at 9:45 p.m.



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Keith McCord reportingFootball aside, the University of Utah is on a roll. In the past four weeks, the "U" has had four research studies published in the science journal "Nature".

The latest paper will appear in tomorrow's editon.

In the wild, the White Crown Sparrow has a beautiful song. Question is-- how do these little guys learn the song??

That's what Biology Professor Gary Rose and his staff wanted to know. So, in the lab, they took a couple dozen baby sparrows-- which couldn't yet sing--and gave them, in effect, music lessons!

They were pretty grueling lessons too. For two months, the birds spent 3-hours a day in a small sound-proof booth with speakers!

Stephanie Plamondon, Doctoral Student, Neuroscience: "What we did, is we had this set up on a computer and twice a day we would run these files, and the birds would hear them in their individual chambers."

On the computer, they broke the song up into five short fragments-- with discernible gaps.

Turns out, these little guys weren't fooled, and learned to sing the entire song as nature intended.

Gary Rose, Prof. of Biology: "They put together the whole song that we decomposed, and they put it back together-- so humpty dumpty back together again, right?"

It worked in reverse too. Sparrows which heard the audio fragments backward, learned the song backward.

All this, believe it or not, in hopes of shedding some light on how we humans learn to speak, when we are just babies listening to our moms and dads!

Stephanie Plamondon, Doctoral Student, Neuroscience: "So hopefully it'll lead to further experiments so that we can figure out exactly how birds are memorizing and learning their songs. And hopefully in the distant future, that will have implications for speech learning as well in humans."

A bird study, that's certainly not JUST for the birds.

Studies on bird songs, and their relationship to human vocal learning, have been going on for about 40-years.

The White Crowned Sparrow has been the primary specimen.

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