Researchers call for expanding the repertoire in studying birdsong

A pair of leading scientists who study songbirds as models for understanding the human brain and how humans acquire language say it's time for the burgeoning field to begin singing a different tune and study a wider variety of species.

Michael Beecher and Eliot Brenowitz, University of Washington professors of psychology and biology, say that while a great deal of knowledge has been gleaned by studying songbirds over the past three decades, a narrow focus on just a few species only provides a fragmentary picture of how the brains of nearly 4,000 songbird species function.

Writing in companion papers in the March issues of the journals Trends in Neurosciences and Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the two UW scientists argue that there is much greater diversity in how and when birds learn to sing than is generally recognized. They say the value of the birdsong system as a model for studying how the brain controls the learning of language would be greatly enhanced by taking into account the diversity seen among different bird species.

"We are interested in comparative approaches," said Beecher, who is an animal behaviorist. "There are many patterns of learning, but most studies are on zebra finches or white-crowned sparrows, in which song learning is restricted to the first year of life. People are not taking advantage of the wide spectrum of bird species. There probably are more species learning songs into their third and fourth years than those who only learn in the first few months or first year."

"One of the great things about songbirds is there is great variety in the manner in which different species learn to sing," said Brenowitz, a neurobiologist. "They are great models, but we should take advantage of the diversity of what they have to offer."

Brenowitz noted that the often-studied zebra finch is sexually mature in just 90 days.

"They learn song quickly so it is hard to say this change in the brain is related to this asp

Contact: Joel Schwarz
University of Washington

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