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Research Update: Both Learning and Genes Contribute to the Zebra Finch’s Song

Research conducted at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (Nature: May, 2009) has, for the first time, illustrated the complex interplay of genetics, learning and social situation in the acquisition of birdsong.

Learning What Song to Sing

As is true for all birds studied, zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) raised in isolation from others of their kind fail to develop the song typically sung by the species.

It was therefore long believed that birds learned species-specific notes by listening to the calls of adults.  In fact, zebra finches that are raised by society finch foster parents sing the song of the society finch, not their own, once mature.

The Surprising Influence of Genes

In the Cold Spring Harbor experiment, finches raised in isolation developed odd songs that were not typical of their species, and this song was mimicked by their chicks.  However, after 4-5 generations, the typical (natural, wild-type) zebra finch song began to emerge, despite the fact that the birds had never heard this song.

The shocked scientists concluded that the song is stored within the genome, but that several generations must pass before it emerges spontaneously.  Under normal circumstances (i.e. where the chicks are raised with exposure to the adult song), learning interacts with genetics to assure that the song is acquired right away.

Future Research Objectives

Ornithologists are interested in discovering if the same process is at work in other species as well…perhaps even the complex and beautiful song of the nightingale is encoded in each male chick.

This research also is expected to have important implications in the study of human language development, and will hopefully lead to new advances in speech therapy.

Further Reading

The zebra finch is one of our most important laboratory animals, and the story of its entry into the pet trade has some surprising twists and turns.  Please see my article The Unknown Side of the Zebra Finch for further information.

A review of this species’ vital role as a laboratory subject is posted at



NightingGale image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by Orchi.


  1. avatar

    i love birds

  2. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog. Please keep checking in…I look forward to your future questions and comments.


    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

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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