Inspiration Report

birds-2417167_960_720Certain types of songbirds have evolved to use their songs to find mates that they will stay with for the rest of their lives. Researchers discovered that each sex uses what is called the sound control system to convert sound waves into social messages. Humans do something similar when they use vocal sounds and speech to communicate, but songbirds are far more advanced at it.

Finches, for example, must learn their songs during the first 90 days of their lives. If they are unable to do that, they will likely never find a mate. They may still be able to sing, but the song will be too poor to attract a mate.

The songs that finches sing are based on the songs of their fathers. Males recognize the songs of other males and copy their fathers’ songs as chicks. Females, on the other hand, memorize their fathers’ songs and use it as the standard by which to judge the songs of potential mates. As a general rule, females prefer songs that are elaborate, and the more syllables the better. If a song is too simple or there is anything at all wrong with it, females will refuse to mate with the male.

Female finches have to be picky because, unlike many other animals, she will only have one mate. Despite their much smaller size, songbirds are like eagles and swans in that they form lifelong bonds with their mates. The same two birds will repeatedly rear young together. Eagles are known to not only return to the same mate every year, but they also reuse the same nest year after year.

Songbirds are hardwired to emphasize social relationships and to learn from their parents. These bonds are so strong that a baby bird reared by the wrong species will learn the wrong song. The songbird will imitate the song of its “adoptive” parents even if it can hear the song of its biological father.

The vocal learning ability of songbirds is extremely unusual according to Dr. Sarah Woolley, a neuroscientist who studies finches at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute. “The magic of the songbird is that vocal learning is incredibly rare to find in animals,” said Dr. Woolley. “No ape can do it (except the human), no monkey can do it and no rodent can do it.” Dr. Woolley hopes that an increased understanding of how songbirds use their brains will allow her to learn more about how humans use their brains to develop spoken language skills early in life and how humans use those skills to communicate later in life.

Songbirds and humans looking for love have something in common: vocal communication. A male songbird sings to show off his potential for siring strong young chicks. Humans do something similar, though our mating rituals are a bit more complex than a finch’s. The basics, however, are still the same. After all, as Dr. Woolley pointed out, “The way that people fall in love is [by] talking to each other.”

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