How parents teach their chicks to chirp

Bird language is more complex than some people think – did you know that some birds even teach their young to chirp properly? Scientists have now found this out as part of a study that revolves around young zebra finches and their singing lessons.

Zebra finches take a lot of time to carefully teach their young birds to sing – Shutterstock / Wang LiQiang

Zebra finches take a lot of time to carefully teach their young birds to sing – Shutterstock / Wang LiQiang

The study was conducted at McGill University in Canada. Jon Sakata and his colleagues observed a group of zebra finches and wanted to find out how the young birds learn to chirp. The researchers came to surprising results.

Social contacts play an important role in learning

In one experiment, some young zebra finches were allowed to “talk” to adult conspecifics or to experience the singing of the large birds directly, while another group only heard the chirping over loudspeakers. It quickly became clear that the socialized birds, i.e. those who were in contact with other adult birds, learned to chirp faster than the group that only heard the singing through loudspeakers. Even a single day in the presence of an adult animal was enough to learn the species-typical song. So social contacts have a direct value for learning the language of birds.

Don't worry little bird, you'll be safe in the bushes until your mom comes to feed you - Shutterstock / Andrew Iurciuc

06/01/2016 – 3:08 p.m

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Bird parents gently teach chicks to chirp

Analyzing the audio recordings, the researchers found that the adult birds sang more slowly and quietly in the presence of the chicks. The adult zebra finches have lengthened the intervals between the individual pieces of song and repeated certain parts of the song over and over again. The young birds immediately became more attentive and were able to learn faster. Jon Sakata and his colleagues hypothesize that the zebra finches actively want to help their young learn to chirp, much like human parents do, speaking slowly and in “baby talk” to their children. It’s highly likely that zebra finches aren’t the only birds so considerate of giving their youngsters an arm or wing.

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