Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Songbirds’ Elaborate Cries For Food Show First Signs Of Vocal Learning

The point is that it's sometimes easier to see the mechanisms of communication when we look at non human social animals. Learning to learn evolves from vocal learning.
Songbirds’ Elaborate Cries For Food Show First Signs Of Vocal Learning:
"ScienceDaily (July 27, 2009) — Only a handful of social animals — songbirds, some marine mammals, some bats and humans — learn to actively style their vocal communications. Babies, for instance, start by babbling, their first chance to experiment with sounds. Now, new research in songbirds shows that vocal experimentation may begin with their earliest vocalizations — food begging calls — and perhaps for a more devious reason than previously believed. The findings could change the way we think about the evolution of vocal learning."

It may have started as cheating,” says Fernando Nottebohm, head of the Laboratory of Animal Behavior at The Rockefeller University. “By generating a diversity of calls, young birds may trick their parents into losing track of whom they last fed, in effect creating the impression of several individuals.” In this scenario, the most agile vocal dissembler would get more than its fair share of food at the expense of its siblings.

Nottebohm and Wan-chun Liu, a research assistant professor who made the original observations, are quick to say that the interpretation remains speculative for now, but if true, it would complicate the conventional wisdom that vocal learning evolved as an adjunct to reproductive behavior. In temperate climates, most often only male songbirds sing. The message conveyed by song is simple: I am a male robin, mature, single and ready to breed; females are welcome, males stay away. Depending on the listener, song is a lure or a threat. By imitating the song of established seniors with whom they would have to compete, young breeders presumably gained an advantage in courtship and territorial defense.

The vocal imitation expressed by adults, however, is a complex behavior requiring sophisticated underlying brain circuits, Nottebohm says. How would birds with only innate, genetically foreordained vocal repertoires have evolved the ability?
. . .
Males producing food begging calls also showed an increased expression of c-fos, a neural activity marker in a section of the forebrain known as the robust nucleus, which later plays a role in the control of learned song.

Here's how that plays out with scientists who study human languages.

Scientist at Work: Tucker Childs
Linguist’s Preservation Kit Has New Digital Tools
New York Times July 28. 2009


  1. Very interesting and i did not know that we were so close to getting birds to communicate. How many years will it take for them to adapt to the English language? What other animals can communicate with humans besides parrots and dolphins. If this is possible then i believe that in years to come birds will be able to speak to humans.

  2. Consider that it is already possible to train birds to do all kinds of things from human commands. Then consider parrots who can mimic human speech.

    A friend told me about a parrot that said the same phrase when she wanted attention.

  3. Just one more thought.
    You said "we were so close to getting birds to communicate."

    I'm not sure if that's what you meant to say but, consider.

    Birds, maybe in the form of dinosaurs, were on the planet way before people. Dolphins, dogs, probably the same thing. Actually most mammals communicate with sounds, but also with smells and body language.

    So maybe we can learn about how communication works from studying them, instead of us "getting birds to communicate."

  4. That is a very good idea. Instead of a less intelligent creature communicating with us, we ourselves should try and communicate with them. At the same time it is evident that birds only give minimal signals and sounds about what they are saying; Humans are diverse and far more intelligent. That's why it would be a marvel if birds started speaking English. Although i very much doubt that right now the brain of a bird can handle that type of intelligence as a parrot is only capable of saying a few words.

  5. What's always amazed me is how much a parrot can communicate with just the few words they have.

  6. They do choose their words very carefully i must say although i have never seen a parrot just watched like five youtube videos on them just now and you are 100 percent correct they say very little but at the same time they convey so many ideas. At the same time i think that we ourselves build it up in our heads because of the fact that we are so eager to find something about a different species that means something and that conveys ideas. Maybe parrots just say words they hear?

  7. http://ask.yahoo.com/20021104.html

  8. This sounds like it may an interesting thread to explore.

  9. What about this: Some first hand experience


  10. cool. More to look at when we have the time.