Date: November 1, 2017
Source: ETH Zurich
As scientists have now shown, songbirds are minimalists when it comes to learning a new song. The birds' learning strategy resembles the methods used by computer scientists for document comparison.
For a songbird, learning a new song is akin to a child learning a new language. Zebra finches approach this challenge step by step, and even make a detour in the process -- by taking song syllables that they already know and adapting them to the syllables that they have to learn. During this learning phase, the syllable sequence often gets mixed up. The birds then arrange the newly-learned syllables into the correct order in the next learning phase. Researchers led by Richard Hahnloser, a professor at the Institute of Neuroinformatics run by ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich, have reported these findings in the latest edition of the journal Nature Communications.
"The zebra finches have evolved the strategy of dividing a task as complex as learning a new song into easy-to-manage parts," says Hahnloser. "This allows them to expand their repertoire with minimal effort."
The scientists made this discovery in an experiment with young birds that were less than a month old at the start of the study. On a daily basis, the researchers broadcasted a song to the birds, which the birds then learned. After a month, the researchers changed the song and the birds tried to adapt their song to the new one. "In nature, birds instinctively adapt their songs to those of adult birds of the same species," explains Hahnloser. The researchers recorded all vocalizations made by the birds and used a computer to evaluate them syllable by syllable.