Originally published – May 2015
For a few people in a lot of countries, the second half of May can mean only one thing, Eurovision; the frankly bizarre, yet entrancing, continental singing competition that comes but once a year. Previous years have seen an Austrian bearded lady, a Finnish monster-themed metal band, and a general smorgasbord of the weird and wonderful. What is most striking though is just how different each country’s performances are, even when geographically they’re so close together.
It should come as no surprise that these sorts of cultural and musical differences are not unique to humans. Song birds have always made up a large part of nature’s chorus and tend to sing to attract mates or protect territories. But scientific evidence suggests that birds of the same species are not always singing along to the same tune. Using spectrograms, a way of visualising the energy of sounds, scientists now know that birds sing using regional dialects in a similar way to South London grime artists or Newcastle’s Paul Gascoigne.
But this revelation brought to light the question of whether these regional differences are down to genes, or whether birds are born tone deaf and learn their songs from their parents and neighbours. During the 1960s, Peter Marler published a number of studies to tease apart how White-Crowned Sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys, learnt their songs. In 1964, he swapped chicks from different regions and found that the adopted birds sang in the dialect of their adopted parents. However, rather than being content with his findings, Marler continued his experiments, and began isolating newborn chicks from hearing any birdsongs at all. He found that these chicks could still sing a remarkably similar but cruder version of their species’ song, suggesting that to some extent their songs were in their DNA. Whilst these chicks might have been the X-Factor audition equivalents of their species, they weren’t quite the most talentless individuals. Chicks born deaf, unable to hear even themselves sing, still opted to, spewing out a cacophony of unrecognisable chirps and whistles.
So birds learn their songs through a combination of genetic instinct and prental tuition, but can they change their accents as adults? If you’ve ever had a friend move abroad you’ll have noticed how quickly they pick up some local quirks in the way they speak that are somewhere between funny and quite annoying. A study published in 2012 teased at this possibility for songbirds as well. Samuel Sober and Michard Brainard from Emory University used tiny sets of headphones to play back the songs of Bengalese Finches, Lonchura striata domestica, with slight modifications. Over the course of two weeks, they allowed the birds to sing whilst playing back the same song but slightly out of tune. They found that so long as the change in tuning overlapped with the range that the finch was already singing in, it would modify its song to become more similar to what it was hearing.
Understanding how birds learn to sing has allowed us to better understand how we ourselves learn to speak. There are three groups of singing birds, parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds, that have all evolved similar parts in their brains that allow them to learn to sing. There are also three types of mammal that are able to learn vocal calls; bats, whales and humans. All 6 of these groups share similar brain make-ups that have evolved to help with learning to sing, click or speak. A 2014 study by Andreas Pfenning and colleagues from MIT found that humans and singing birds share over 50 genes that have evolved in similar ways to develop the brain circuitry required for vocal learning. This large amount of similarity suggests that there are limits on how animals can evolve these remarkable abilities, and helps us to better understand how our own species evolved.
Whilst songbirds may have the regional quirks that are essential for any continental singing competition, it’s unlikely that they could match Eurovision’s visual flair, and that’s not something that Eurovision should be particularly proud of. However, in a time in which Eurovision has become so obscure and irrelevant that it will turn a blind eye to allowing Australia into a European competition, it’s a fun reminder of how similar we can be to even distantly related animals. If birds could enter their songs would be as varied and unique as their human European counterparts, and in the scientific pursuit of understanding how and why birds learn to croon, perhaps we can finally get one step closer to understanding how and why Eurovision still exists at all.
Nelson, D. A., Khanna, H., & Marler, P. (2001). Learning by instruction or selection: implications for patterns of geographic variation in bird song.Behaviour, 138(9), 1137-1160.
Marler, P., & Tamura, M. (1964). Culturally transmitted patterns of vocal behavior in sparrows. Science, 146(3650), 1483-1486.
Marler, P. (1970). A comparative approach to vocal learning: song development in White-crowned Sparrows. Journal of comparative and physiological psychology, 71(2p2), 1.
Sober, S. J., & Brainard, M. S. (2012). Vocal learning is constrained by the statistics of sensorimotor experience. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(51), 21099-21103.
Pfenning, A. R., Hara, E., Whitney, O., Rivas, M. V., Wang, R., Roulhac, P. L., … & Jarvis, E. D. (2014). Convergent transcriptional specializations in the brains of humans and song-learning birds. Science, 346(6215), 1256846.