From Emory University in the USA:
Doing the math for how songbirds learn to sing
(Phys.org)—Scientists studying how songbirds stay on key have developed a statistical explanation for why some things are harder for the brain to learn than others.
“We’ve built the first mathematical model that uses a bird’s previous sensorimotor experience to predict its ability to learn,” says Emory biologist Samuel Sober. “We hope it will help us understand the math of learning in other species, including humans.” Sober conducted the research with physiologist Michael Brainard of the University of California, San Francisco. Their results, showing that adult birds correct small errors in their songs more rapidly and robustly than large errors, were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Sober’s lab uses Bengalese finches as a model for researching the mechanisms of how the brain learns to correct vocal mistakes. Just like humans, baby birds learn to vocalize by listening to adults. Days after hatching, Bengalese finches start imitating the sounds of adults. “At first, their song is extremely variable and disorganized,” Sober says. “It’s baby talk, basically.”
The young finches keep practicing, listening to their own sounds and fixing any mistakes that occur, until eventually they can sing like their elders. Young birds, and young humans, make a lot of big mistakes as they learn to vocalize. As birds and humans get older, the variability of mistakes shrinks. One theory contends that adult brains tend to screen out big mistakes and pay more attention to smaller ones. “To correct any mistake, the brain has to rely on the senses,” Sober explains. “The problem is, the senses are unreliable. If there is noise in the environment, for example, the brain may think it misheard and ignore the sensory experience.” The link between variability and learning may explain why youngsters tend to learn faster and why adults are more resistant to change.
A detailed 3D image of a bird’s voice box has been created by scientists investigating how the animals sing: here.
How Can Birds Sing Without Pausing To Breathe? Here.
December 2013: New findings from the University of Washington show that consistent individual differences exist not only for how aggressive individual song sparrows are but also for how much they use their signals to communicate their aggressive intentions: here.
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