The results also may have implications for how people learn language, says Gary J. Rose, a University of Utah professor of biology and principal author of the study published in the Dec. 9 issue of the journal Nature.
"There are strong parallels between song learning in birds and speech learning in humans," he says. "Like humans, songbirds learn particular regional dialects, so they represent excellent opportunities to study the physiological basis of language. If we can understand something about how song is represented in their brains, then maybe we can better understand how speech learning occurs in humans and, when it goes awry, how we might go about fixing it."
Study co-author Stephanie Plamondon, a doctoral student in neuroscience, added: "We were able to give the birds just pieces of the song, and they were able to assemble a complete song from those pieces. A full song or a complete sentence isn't required to learn the song, only an association between phrases [segments] of the song."
Other authors of the study were Franz Goller, an associate professor of biology; Brenton Cooper, a postdoctoral researcher in Goller's laboratory; and Howard Gritton and Alexander Baugh, who worked on the study as undergraduates, then as technicians.
This is Your Brain; This is Your Brain with Experience
Songbirds must hear their species' song when they are young or they fail to learn to sing it. Such birds "produce very simple songs, mostly repeated whistles," Rose says.
Birds learn to sing in stages. First, there is a "subsong" phase in which they babble softly, almost like human infants. Then, they