During their first three months, male zebra finch chicks listen to their fathers as they sing and learn to imitate their songs. To begin with, the sounds the birds make are unstructured, much like the babbling of a baby, but become more refined over time as they learn to copy the complex aspects of their fathers’ songs.
Researchers from Columbia University attempted to find out what is happening to the brains of the chick during these three crucial months and focused their attention on the neurons of the auditory cortex, the region of the brain that listens to sounds. They were able to identify the neural circuit within this part of the brain which responds to the songs that the chicks are learning.
To further investigate how flexible this neural circuit is in the finches, zebra finch and long tailed finch eggs were placed into the nests of a third species of songbird, the Bengalese finch. When the eggs hatched the chicks began to learn the song of their adoptive fathers, rather than that of their own species. Even when in the same room as males of their own species, the hatched chicks ignored the songs of their species, and instead tuned into the Bengalese finch songs.
Because the auditory cortex is similar in birds and mammals, this research has the potential to help explain why young children find it so easy to pick up languages, something that is typically more difficult for adults.
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