ScienceDaily (2007-12-27) — The melodious sound of a songbird may appear effortless, but his elocutions are actually the result of rigorous training undergone in youth and maintained throughout adulthood. His tune has virtually “crystallized” by maturity. The same control is seen in the motor performance of top athletes and musicians. Yet, subtle variations in highly practiced skills persist in both songbirds and humans. Now, scientists think they know why.
In support of the current findings, previous work by Brainard’s team and others has revealed that when male songbirds sing alone there is greater variability in their song than when they sing to females.
The theory, says Brainard, is that the birds can afford to experiment, and thus practice their tunes, when the pressure is off. This process, he suggests, is not occurring at a conscious level. Rather, it is likely driven by neurochemicals released under varying circumstances that are then acting on a region of the nervous system known as the basal ganglia, which is critical to song learning and maintenance.
“You could imagine,” says Tumer, who is also a member of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at UCSF, “that when wooing a female bird – or stepping onto the green for the Masters golf tournament — neuromodulatory systems would be more engaged than if the bird were on a lonely tree branch or the athlete on a sleepy Sunday afternoon round of golf with friends.”
This article reminds me that I need to finish reading Donald Kroodsma’s Singing Life of Birds.