Now Rockefeller University scientists have found that zebra finches, songbirds native to Australia, use infant-like strategies to learn their song. Some finches focus on perfecting individual song components, referred to as "syllables," while others practice longer patterns called motifs. Which strategy they choose, or what combination of strategies, seems to depend on what their siblings are doing. In time, all are able to sing the same adult song.
The results, reported in the December 13 online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are the first to show a social influence on how birds learn their song by analyzing song-learning with birds kept in family groups rather than in isolation chambers.
The Rockefeller team also shows for the first time that individual birds, of the same species, can follow different strategies to get to the same end point of singing the adult song. Until now, scientists thought that the vocal learning process in birds was mainly a matter of filling in details in a pre-existing developmental program. If so, then this program is, in zebra finches, a very flexible one.
"This research points to a remarkable parallel in vocal learning in infants and some songbirds" says senior author Fernando Nottebohm, Ph.D., Dorothea L. Leonhardt Professor and head of the Laboratory of Animal Behavior at Rockefeller.
"In both cases vocal learning seems to be approached as a challenge in problem solving," says Nottebohm, whose studies in canaries in the 1980s provided the first evidence of spontaneous neuronal replacement in the adult vertebrate brain.