How do birds learn to sing? – Partha P. Mitra

How do birds learn to sing? – Partha P. Mitra

This is a song sung by a brown thrasher. But that’s just one of the thousand
or more that it knows, and it’s not the only avian virtuoso. A wood thrush can sing
two pitches at once. A mockingbird can match the sounds
around it, including car alarms. And the Australian superb lyrebird has an incredible, elaborate song
and dance ritual. These are just a few of
the 4,000 species of songbirds. Most birds produce short, simple calls, but songbirds also have
a repertoire of complex vocal patterns that help them attract mates, defend territory, and strengthen their social bonds. Each songbird species
has its own distinct song patterns, some with characteristic
regional dialects. Experienced listeners can even distinguish
individual birds by their unique songs. So how do birds learn these songs
in the first place? How do they know to mimic the songs
of their own species? Are they born knowing how to sing? A lot of what scientists know about bird
song comes from studying zebra finches. A baby male zebra finch typically learns
to sing from its father or other males, starting while it’s still
a fledgling in the nest. First comes a sensory learning phase, when the baby finch hears the songs
sung around it and commits them to memory. The bird starts to vocalize
during the motor learning phase, practicing until it can
match the song it memorized. As the bird learns, hearing
the tutor’s song over and over again is helpful—
up to a point. If he hears it too many times, the
imitation degrades— and the source matters. If the song is played
through a loudspeaker, he can’t pick it up as easily. But hide the same loudspeaker inside
a toy painted to look like a zebra finch, and his learning improves. What if the baby never hears another
zebra finch’s song? Interestingly enough, it’ll sing anyway. Isolated finches still produce
what are called innate or isolate songs. A specific tune might be taught, but the instinct to sing seems
to be hardwired into a songbird’s brain. Innate songs sound different from
the “cultured” songs learned from other finches—at first. If isolated zebra finches
start a new colony, the young birds pick up
the isolate song from their parents. But the song changes
from generation to generation. And after a few iterations, the melody actually starts to resemble the cultured songs sung
by zebra finches in the wild. Something about the learning process
must be hardwired, too, drawing the birds towards the
same song patterns again and again. This means that basic information
about the zebra finch song must be stored somewhere
in its genome, imprinted there by millions
of years of evolution. At first, this might seem odd, as we usually think of genetic code as a
source of biochemical or physical traits, not something like a behavior or action. But the two aren’t
fundamentally different; we can connect genomes to
behavior through brain circuitry. The connection is noisy and quite complex. It doesn’t simply map single genes
to single behaviors, but it exists. Genomes contain codes for proteins
that guide brain development, such as molecules that guide the pathways
of developing axons, shaping distinct circuits. Birds’ brains
have so-called “song circuits” that are active when the birds sing. These circuits also respond to the song
of a bird’s own species more strongly than
to other species’ songs. So the theory is that a bird’s genes
guide development of brain circuits that relate to singing
and the ability to learn songs. Then, exposure to songs
shapes those neural circuits to produce the songs
that are typical to that species. Genetically encoded or innate behaviors
aren’t unique to songbirds. They’re widespread in the animal kingdom. Spectacular examples include the long-distance migrations
of monarch butterflies and salmon. So what does this mean for humans? Are we also born with innate
information written into our genomes that helps shape our neural circuits, and ultimately results
in something we know? Could there be some knowledge that is unique
and intrinsic to humans as a species?

100 thoughts on “How do birds learn to sing? – Partha P. Mitra

  1. Are you between 8 and 18 years old? Do you want to share your passion or idea on the TED platform? Awesome! We want that, too! Learn more about TED-Ed's student voice initiative and sign up to participate here:

  2. Excellent video as always, Birds are fascinating, such beautiful creatures.
    Thank you for the informative video and the great art. We learn and enjoy at the same time 🙂

  3. Ok but the lyre bird is way better than the mockingbird you mentioned. My proof is in the video where it makes noises like a laser gun and I can’t remember what else. It’s incredible

  4. I believe there was a bird that matches the sounds of a intergalactic space guns sound effect in movies, probably they might have got that the same sound on that particular bird….
    Does anyone knows if this is legit? If yes, what is the bird's name?…. Thanks.

  5. It's like when a swallow fly's from the nest having never practiced. It just is. Humans however are Dodo like in our remedial like desperate attempt into understanding why we are here, and meaning of everything in the universe. Be a bird.

  6. I have one question for those who disliked the video—what is it that you actually wanna say? you disagree with the things said and have a different theory? then share it with us.

  7. I think if I were born and raised in isolation I think I would somehow still be able to draw boobs. They would probably not look like real boobs but I would find myself drawn to some sort of similar shape

  8. Maybe humans are hardwired to question the world and trying to make sense of it? It does not necessarily lead to the right conclusions but the mechanism is the same. Nice video, I asked myself that question just a while ago.

  9. Birds are too cool. Some birds' active heart rate may reach over 1,200 beats/minute.

  10. Faith and I don't mean religion. That is something that human beings or program to have .whether it's a rock or some dude on a chair in the sky.

  11. Can ted ed make a video about bird roosting? I was kinda expecting to see a ted ed video about that but sadly there's none. And i'm a big fan of your videos i learn a lot and usually spend half of my day scavenging on your videos.

  12. The idea of being drawn to the same song is actually why a lot of people are thinking that pop culture music is all starting to sound the same.

  13. wait a minute… so you can compose a song by clipping the bird song and teach it to the infant bird? woah… teach them Bach in bird noises.

  14. Learn to Sing: Breathing. Breathing well will support your voice. Singing when there's no breath left is a common way of tiring your voice. Follow the steps

  15. Wow. I never head my Zebra Finches use that song. Then again, I don't know cuz j haven't heard them in… 2 years? Bye

  16. And ythen chas has been an awesome night for you guys I love you so very happy you have a wonderful weekend love y’all bye up there and let you talk and I will be home tomorrow.

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