Birds Deal With "Cocktail Party Effect"

between the two pairs. They could do this even when they heard song examples that contained just one of the two species' songs in the pair, a bird song sound they had never heard before. They accurately chose the correct species more than 80 percent of the time, well above the 50 percent that would be expected from pure chance decisions.

When paired songs were mixed with the dawn chorus, the starlings were still nearly as successful, identifying the correct bird songs with an accuracy ranging from just under 80 percent to about 85 percent.

Hulse began working with birds about 15 years ago, studying how the brain is able to separate a series of sights or sounds into distinct objects, using them as landmarks. By learning how to arrange those sights and sounds into an order, called a serial order, animals and people are able to navigate their environments. For example, Hulse originally worked with rats, studying how they learned landmarks to find their way through mazes.

But he switched to birds, in part because he was allergic to the rodents. "I decided that maybe there was a better way to do research on this question," Hulse said.

He had always been interested in music, having taken courses in harmony and music theory as an undergraduate, and he is an amateur pianist.

"It occurred to me that music was a perfect example of something that happened in serial order," he said. "Since I was working with animals, I started looking around for a likely animal to begin studying this issue. I thought about songbirds because they sing. Their song is not music, but bird song has a grammar and a structure to it. And I picked starlings because they can learn to mimic other sounds, even sounds like human speech that are not part of their natural world. That meant I could work with synthetic as well as natural sounds to study their hearing abilities."

To begin, the scientist trained birds to peck two different keys, one when they hear

Contact: Emil Venere
Johns Hopkins University

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