Best media release (we’ve seen) today comes from UC-San Francisco: “Tweeting Teenage Songbirds Reveal Impact of Social Cues on Learning.”

No, this has nothing to do with Twitter (which is in the news today because of the intoxicating impact of social media on venture capital).

It has everything to do with the role of social interaction and how we learn language. The neuroscientists studied how juvenile zebra finches, Australian birds described as “loud and boisterous singers,” learn their songs.

Scientists have focused on zebra finches as language research subject for a while (see the National Institutes of Health Office of Science education: “Can Zebra Finches Tell Us How We Learn to Talk—and Walk?”). Young male finches start out with something like human infants’ babbling—a series of trials and errors as they mimic the adult male songs they hear.

The new findings from the UCSF scientists come down to this: the juvenile birds change their tune when there’s a girl zebra finch around:

Until now, scientists and bird watchers alike have thought that young birds could only produce immature song. However, in a process that involved recording and studying male zebra finch song, the scientists discovered that, in the presence of a female, the birds sang much better than when they were practicing their song alone.

“We were very surprised by the finding,” said senior author Allison Doupe, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and physiology and a member of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at UCSF. “The birds picked the best version of the song that they could possibly perform and they sang it over and over again. They sounded almost like adults. It turns out that teenagers know more than they’re telling us.”

Listen to some snippets of zebra finch song recorded by Florda State University researcher Frank Johnson.

Author

Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke (Twitter: @danbrekke) has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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