Friday, March 14, 2008

Birdbrains

Though they perch far apart on the avian family tree, different groups of birds that can learn songs use similar brain structures to pitch their tunes.

In all three groups of birds that are able to learn a tune -- parrots, songbirds and hummingbirds -- the brain structures for singing and learning to sing are embedded in areas that control movement, neurobiologists at Duke University in North Carolina this week said in a release.

The findings may also help solve the riddle of why humans (especially Italians) talk with our hands and voice, but chimps (except in the Planet of the Apes) can talk only with their hands.

"In its most specialised way, spoken language is the ability to control the learned movements of our larynx," neorobiologist Erich Jarvis said. "It's possible that human language pathways have also evolved in ways similar to these birds.

"Perhaps the evolution of vocal learning brain areas for birds and humans exploited a universal motor system that predates the split from the common ancestor of birds and mammals."

Professor Jarvis and his colleagues examined bird species with vocal learning skills and some without: garden warblers, zebra finches, budgerigars (an exceedingly cute species of parrot), Anna's hummingbirds and ring doves. The coneheads observed and manipulated bird behavior, then recorded which genes were active in the birds' brains when the birds moved and sang in certain ways.

While all birds vocalize, for most of them these sounds are genetically hardwired. Only parrots, songbirds and hummingbirds have the ability to learn songs. This type of vocal learning is similar to the way humans learn to speak, Professor Jarvis said.

3 Comments:

At Wednesday, April 23, 2008, Blogger Sharon said...

Very interesting... I didn't realize hummingbirds could learn songs!

 
At Wednesday, April 23, 2008, Blogger Mary said...

You made me smile describing budgies as exceedingly cute. I wholeheartedly agree!

 
At Wednesday, August 06, 2008, Blogger Grump Les Tiltskin said...

Yes, but they can only hum them :-)

 

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