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Songbird, Sing Me a Song

on October 20, 2007
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Penn State Live: “Probing Question: How do songbirds learn to sing? A press release from Penn State University this week draws attention to the incredible mental capabilities of “ordinary” songbirds.

Penn State’s Alexay Kozhevnikov, an assistant professor of physics and psychology, explains that bird songs are meant for far more than human enjoyment:

In a bird’s world, a sloppy song can have serious consequences, Kozhevnikov said. “It means he’ll have a very tough time mating,” he noted. “One major reason songbirds sing is to attract females who choose their mates on the basis of song quality.”

Males who don’t pick up the skill of singing from their fathers, meanwhile, are doomed to sing “poorly structured” songs that “lack the wealth of acoustic structure.”

Males who don’t pick up the skill of singing from their fathers, meanwhile, are doomed to sing “poorly structured” songs that “lack the wealth of acoustic structure.”

What are the females attracted to? “There is some research that has tried to find out which aspects of the song are most attractive to females,” Kozhevnikov explains, citing “tempo precision or the bird’s ability to repeatedly and precisely hit the same rhythm” that “might be an indication that the singer is fit and in great shape.”

Kozhevnikov is researching how bird brains coordinate the sophisticated songs. “The hope is that the principles of such an organization might be general and what we learn about studying the birds might be applicable to humans.” Humans already resemble birds (and whales and dolphins) in being able to listen to a sound and reproduce it (perfectly or not). The press release explains the professor’s research:

Using a tiny, lightweight device [... Kozhevnikov] has measured the electrical signals of individual neurons firing in one of the bird’s brain areas responsible for singing, an area known as the high vocal center, and found their ability to repeatedly hit the same rhythm to be within a millisecond, or one-thousandth of a second.

Talk about precision! Kozhevnikov emphasizes that “from an engineering/neuroscience point of view, [this bird capability is] a marvel. It’s, I believe, the most precise sequence in nature found to date.”

Disappointingly, Kozhevnikov does not see the amazing capabilities in such tiny brains as evidence of intelligent design; rather, Kozhevnikov credits anthropomorphic “Mother Nature” for “creating” the capability through natural selection. “If a bird doesn’t sing an attractive song, his genes are going to be out of the genetic pool of the population.” If the evolutionists are right, then it’s only a matter of time before songbirds are replicating Bach and Beethoven with that sort of precision! But a “little bird told us” that it’s actually not evolution that’s responsible for this incredible capability. While natural selection may play a part in fine-tuning the song, we submit that the creator was not “Mother Nature,” and that the bird was designed to do what it does do, and it does do it well, and always has.

And for those of you who have been reading News to Note for a while, you’ll recall that this isn’t the first mention of unexpectedly sophisticated bird intelligence. (See the September 22, 2007, and August 25, 2007, editions for recent stories on that topic.)


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