Finches – Learning to Sing
Just as humans have to learn how to speak, songbirds must learn their song. How well they learn will impact their ability to find a mate. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.
Sewall: So in this room we have quite a few flocks of males and they’re the ones who do the singing.
Kendra Sewall is an assistant professor of biological sciences at Virginia Tech. She and her team have been studying the behavior of Zebra Finches.
Sewall: Male have songs that they learn from their tutors who are usually their fathers. Each male has a slightly different song and the females use that song to decide which males they like best.
Sewall: So if we want to know how well a male learned his song, what we really have to do is find his tutor’s song and take really careful measurements of the time that they start certain phrases – the opening beeps for instance, like this:
Sewall: Or maybe how many times they repeat certain syllables. For example, this particular syllable sort of stands out and we might look at how frequently they repeat it.
Sewall: So we’d be looking at very fine scale changes to determine how well they imitate their tutor. In this song, the male uses one particular phrase twice. This is the phrase we’re listening for here.
Sewall: That “beep beep.” I’m going to play the section where he repeats it, so you’ll hear a “beep beep” and then some stuff in the middle and then another beep beep.
Sewall: So males could add that and do it three of four times, and that would be a longer and more complex song that a female zebra finch would be particularly sensitive to and would really like.
You can this and previous programs on our podcast. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.