How do birds learn to sing? Based on sounds heard during early life: study

Results from a field investigation with wild birds have confirmed laboratory experiments and assumptions that songbirds learn to sing from adults during early life.

Research on five generations of savannah sparrows confirm long-held assumption

The research team used the population of savannah sparrows on Kent Island, N.B. (Submitted by Dan Mennill)

For years, people have assumed that songbirds learn to sing through listening to adults in the early stages of life.

Now, the first field investigation with wild birds has results that support the assumption.

"We used loudspeakers to simulate the voices of our study animal, which is a little songbird called the savannah sparrow," said Dan Mennill, lead author of the study and a professor at the University of Windsor.

Researchers recorded the songs of sparrows to see if they match those played to them during the early years of their life. (Submitted by Stephanie Doucet)

Over six years, his team broadcast distinctive songs to five generations of birds for the first three months of their life. Those young savannah sparrows were found to have learned the different songs from the speakers.

Results suggest the birds preferentially learn songs heard in the natal summer and the first spring.

The research study was published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

The team, consisting of five professors, three graduate students and a handful of undergraduate students, studied the birds on Kent Island, N.B.

Ryan Norris, University of Guelph professor and co-author on the study, said that the sparrows born on that island will often return to breed as adults.

"This presented us with a special opportunity to manipulate the early acoustic environment of young sparrows, and then study the voices of those same animals when they returned from migration as adults," said Norris.

The next question then is if those experimental songs will continue to live on.

In four cases, they have.

"These experimentally introduced accents have now been introduced into the second generation of birds," said Mennill, who described the experimental songs as a regular song, but a little different from a natural one.

In the years ahead, his team will be following the fate of those animals to see what happens with those songs.