Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Young canaries sing surprising songs

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It's easy to get little kids to say something funny like "Big Bird is the President of the United States" because they don't know what the sentence means. They just repeat the sounds.

About half the world's birds are also able to imitate sounds, and a new study shows that you can trick young songbirds called canaries into singing computer-generated songs that would sound funny or strange to adult canaries.

We'll call the not-very-canary songs "canary punk rock" because the songs don't follow the format of adult canary songs, which we'll refer to as "classic canary."

To trick the young canaries into singing canary punk rock, they were raised in sound-proof cages and only heard recordings of canary punk rock during their first year of life. They never heard classic canary songs.

Right before breeding season, the young male canaries changed their canary punk rock songs so they began to sound more like classic canary even though they'd never heard a single classic canary song.

This switch from punk rock to classic canary highlights the singing rules canaries must follow in adulthood. The rules ensure that the males will sing songs that potential mates will recognize. When males sing classic canary songs during the spring breeding season, females are encouraged to build nests, produce eggs and look for a mate.

With this research, Timothy Gardner from Rockefeller University in New York City and his team are gaining a better understanding of how songbirds learn songs. For example, the scientists didn't know that young canary males had the ability to sing such a wide range of songs. It's surprising because adult canaries follow specific song rules.

By studying how songbirds string sounds together to make songs, the scientists are also hoping to learn more about how humans connect sounds together to make words.

This research appears in the 13 May, 2005 issue of the journal Science.

One of the canary punk rock songs sounds like a water balloon falling from the air in a video game the sounds start high and gradually get lower. If you imagine that sound in your head, you'll notice that each of the little sounds that join together to make the falling-water-balloon sound is different than its neighbor sound.

The fact that each little sound is different from its neighbor is what makes the computer-generated canary songs so rule breaking. In classic canary, the birds repeat the same sound many times in a row, to create what is called a phrase.

There is one major problem with canary punk rock. Female canaries have never heard it. If the males try to sing canary punk rock to females in an attempt to find a mate, the females will almost definitely ignore the bird singing the song.

In the experiment, the canary males changed from punk rock to classical as breeding season approached, even though they've never heard canary classical in their entire lives.

This research suggests that, for songbirds, learning to imitate sounds requires both freedom in youth and rule following in adulthood.