Bird Brothers, Coached by Dad, Form Singing Duo

Singing zebra finch brothers created a new song based on the signature song of their dad.
G. Huet des Aunay

It goes a little something like this: A young male zebra finch, whose father taught him a song, shared that song with a brother, with the two youngsters then creating new tunes based on dad’s signature sound.

The musical bird family, described in the latest Biology Letters, strengthens evidence that imitation between siblings and similar-aged youngsters facilitates vocal learning. The theory could help to explain why families with multiple same sex siblings, such as the Bee Gees and the Jackson 5, often form such successful musical groups.

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Co-author Sébastien Derégnaucourt told Discovery News that, among humans, “infants have a visual preference for peers of the same age, which may facilitate imitation.” He added that it’s also “known that children can have an impact on each other’s language acquisition, such as in the case of the emergence of creole languages, whether spoken or signed, among children exposed to pidgin (a grammatically simplified form of a language).”

Pidgin in this case is more like pigeon, since the study focused on birds. Derégnaucourt, an associate professor at University Paris West, collaborated with Manfred Gahr of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. The two researchers studied how the young male zebra finch from a bird colony in Germany learned from his avian dad.

“Young male zebra finches learn to sing during a sensitive period that starts around day 25 post-hatch,” he said. “A phase of intense practice, which recalls human’s babbling phase, lasts for a couple of months. During this time, the young bird is comparing its own vocal output with a song model that he memorizes. The song model is usually its father’s song.”

Derégnaucourt went on to explain that young male zebra finches -- when they reach 30 to 35 days -- practice on their own, based on memory, since dad likely has literally flown the coop by then.

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