Fascinating Winter Wren Birdsong

You may appreciate the complexity of the winter wren’s songs even more at one-sixth speed.  To perform his rapid trills—with notes so close together they are hard for our ears to discern in real time—the male bird draws on the power of his two voice boxes, likely alternating notes between them.  The wren’s music is both soothing and stimulating, a fitting backdrop for these final words from the bird-loving Kroodsma: “Although mothers play Mozart to babies in the womb, I think thrushes and wrens and sparrows and a more natural chorus would be at least as effective… within each of us resides an innate love of nature, especially birdsongs.”

I used Audacity to create the following audio samples, uploaded to MediaFire to make them downloadable:

The Winter Wren’s song at normal speed.

The Winter Wren’s song at 1/6th speed.

This beautiful song trills along at such a rapid pace it would give even the best virtuoso flutist a heart attack and permanent finger cramps!

Also, this site is a great source of other birdsongs, playable right on the page.

Understanding Language via BIRDSONG

Hubert and Mabel Frings.  In the 1950s they recorded French Jackdaw crows.  The Frings played those same French crow calls to American crows that never migrated, and they didn’t udnerstand them.  But when they played those same French calls for American Jackdaws that did migrate, they understood!  Conclusion: “This means that the reactions to the calls are at least partly learned by the crows and are not strictly inborn.”

I just watched “Nova ScienceNOW: Bird Brains

this segment:

  • introduces a leading expert on birdsong who believes the key to understanding human speech lies in understanding how birds learn their songs.

  • states that both birds and humans have sophisticated circuitry in brain regions that control learned vocal behavior.

  • reports that birds learn to sing in a way that is similar to how humans learn to speak. Early bird song is unstructured, like a baby’s babbling. This stage is followed by mimicking adult sounds.

  • introduces scientists who study speech processing in zebra finches that stutter. They compare magnetic resonance images of speech-activation patterns of stuttering and non-stuttering zebra finches. These patterns are similar to ones seen between human stutterers and non-stutterers.

  • reports on genetic studies of a family who suffered from a rare speech disorder—a single gene mutation in the FOXP2 gene was the cause. It was named the language gene.

  • reveals that scientists isolated the FOXP2 gene in birds and discovered that it influences the way a bird learns to sing. The level of the FOXP2 gene product increases or decreases depending upon whether song learning is occurring. When researchers reduced the level of FOXP2 product, the birds had a reduced capacity to learn song.

  • points out that FOXP2 is the only gene known to be essential for normal speech development in humans and songbirds, and that this gene is present in most organisms.