three zebra finches perched on dead branch
Zebra finches receive maternal ‘approval’ before sex. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

An important clue to finch mating success

Here’s a surprising little piece of info: zebra finches belong to an elite club that includes humans.

A new study shows that male zebra finches learn their father’s complex tune better when mum ‘fluffs up’ to signal her approval.

This is the first time the songbirds have been shown to use social cues for learning—putting them in a special group that includes cowbirds, marmosets and us.

The finding suggests other songbirds might also learn their tunes this way, and that zebra finches are better models for studying language development than thought.

Dad’s rhythmics

Cornell University developmental psycho-biologists Samantha Carouso-Peck and Michael Goldstein say it takes a typical zebra finch 55 days to learn dad’s rhythmic beeping tune.

The scientists selected nine pairs of zebra finch brothers that were raised by their parents until they were 35 days old and just starting to practice their fathers’ songs. For an hour a day over 25 days, each brother sang by himself in a sound chamber equipped with a video monitor and camera.

Whenever they sang, a researcher played a video of an unrelated adult female finch erecting her feathers and moving her upper body quickly from side to side. (Such ‘fluff-ups’ apparently signal that females like a male’s tune.)

Sexually mature

When the birds were sexually mature, the scientists compared the young males’ songs with those of their fathers. The birds that got female feedback were those belting out melodies more acoustically similar to those of their fathers.

“We’ve shown that a young male zebra finch isn’t learning his song via a special imitation box in his head,” Goldstein says. “He’s learning it from his mom, who loves his dad’s song and is already excited and aroused by that song.”

Source: Science Magazine


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