Adult Birds Use "Baby Talk"--and Babies Pay Attention

New research shows not only that baby birds learn songs best if they're tutored, but that adult birds seem to modify their songs the way we humans use baby talk. Further, activity in the babies' brains may have implications for research in attention issues in people. 

Birds do not hatch knowing how to sing. Like humans, they need to learn how to vocalize in socially meaningful ways. While it is known that baby birds learn from adults, Jon Sakata and his team of biologists at McGill University wanted to find out whether an adult needs to be present for the best learning or whether simply hearing the song is enough for baby birds. In other words, they wanted to find out whether the social connection matter when it comes to teaching.

For this study, male Zebra Finch chicks were observed learning songs from adult males either in person or by recording. (Why Zebra Finches? Because they breed well in the lab. And why just males? Because the males are the primary singers of the species.) The chicks, who had been cared for only by females prior to the study, were exposed for varying amounts of time to males singing in two different conditions. One group of chicks were tutored by a male in person; the other heard him singing to chicks in another room. The results? The chicks tutored in person learned their song more accurately no matter how long they were exposed to it. Further, the chicks who paid the most attention learned the best.

But the chicks weren't the only ones paying more attention. The males doing the tutoring took extra care when singing to their pupils. They repeated the beginning of the song, slowed down their phrases, and cleaned up some stray sounds. If you've ever spoken to a young child, you know exactly what these adults did. Further research is needed before anyone knows whether the adult males made these changes deliberately.

One last item of interest: the brains of the chicks who learned in person showed activity in two regions that showed no activity in the chicks who learned by recording. That is, the social activity of being taught in person seemed to activate mechanisms for attention. The research continues in order to identify just what those mechanisms might be.

What to know more? Read the abstract of the original study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Washington Post has a nice article, too, complete with sound samples.