“The biggest difference between male and female brains of the same species is found in songbirds,” said Sarah Woolley, a neuroscientist who studies finches at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute.
Dr. Woolley’s lab has been looking into the acoustic systems of zebra, bengalese and long-tailed finches to see how their brains take in and process sounds — learning, performing and analyzing different parts of them to make sense of songs.
A male’s system is designed to recognize the songs of other males and copy his father’s. If he doesn’t learn, perfect and memorize his father’s song within the first 90 days of life, when his brain is especially malleable, he never will. He still sings, but “he sings a disaster,” said Dr. Woolley. “And the females want nothing to do with him.”
When a female’s brain is young and malleable, she tunes into her father’s song, memorizes it and then stores it as a template for evaluating a mate’s song later. This example reminds her that she didn’t die, and her father helped ensure that. Perhaps something similar will work for her offspring.
Females tend to prefer elaborate songs with more syllables.
How well the birds learn depends on a genetic predisposition to tune into sounds specific to their species. But experience is important too. Because social relationships are so powerful, a baby bird reared by the wrong species, Dr. Woolley has found, can learn the wrong species’ song even if its biological father’s song is audible.
“The magic of the songbird is that vocal learning is incredibly rare to find in animals,” said Dr. Woolley. “No ape can do it (except the human), no monkey can do it, and no rodent can do it.” And she believes that by understanding more about how songbirds use their brains to make sense of sound, she can learn more about how humans use theirs to develop a spoken language early to communicate later in life.
For songbirds that form bonds with members of the same sex for life, songs, though still important message bearers, may be less important for finding a match.
And although some humans may be less interested in words than other aspects like looks, scent, youth, money, power or whatever we find attractive in a partner, birdsongs remind us that good communication, in any pair, makes love possible. “The way that people fall in love, is talking to each other,” Dr. Woolley said.