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Research Update: Zebra Finches Provide Insights into the Acquisition and Timing of Birdsong and Human Speech


Zebra FinchThe chipper little zebra finch, ever popular in the lab and home, has once again shed some light on topics important to those who study both birds and people.

Hearing and Correcting the Song

Researchers at Switzerland’s Zurich University have shown that certain cells in zebra finch brains become active when the bird makes a mistake in its song, or when a disruption is introduced into a recording of another’s song.  This offers the first proof that birds listen to their own songs, and compare what they hear to an “ideal” song that is stored somewhere in the brain.

Implications for People

Human language skills are thought to develop in a similar manner, but the functioning of the neurons involved is largely unknown.  The recent discoveries concerning finches may point the way towards a better understanding of speech development in people.

Song and Speech Timing

In related experiments, it was discovered that a specific area of the brain, the High Vocal Center, controls the timing of zebra finch singing.  Cooling this area of the brain slowed the song’s tempo, but did not affect the sequence of the notes (one is tempted to wonder why the birds kept singing while their brains were being chilled!).

Birdsong and human speech both require a complex series of timing adjustments if they are to be understood by others of their species.  The Zurich researchers are hopeful that their work will have implications for those studying human speech impediments.

The zebra finch is one of the world’s most important laboratory animals, and studies of it have led to a staggering array of important discoveries.  An interesting summary of its many contributions is posted at:


About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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