It’s often said songbirds sing to bless the morning. While that notion seems idealistically sound, it in fact boils down to two things: territorial distinction and attracting a mate.
Still, complex mysteries remain in the way female songbirds, which are generally incapable of singing, interpret songs and make subjective decisions in selecting a superior male to reproduce with.
At the University of Wyoming, researchers are one step closer to unlocking those secrets.
“I always wanted to know how things worked, ever since I was a little kid,” said Jonathan Prather, a UW zoology and physiology professor. “I want to take how the nervous system works and interesting behaviors animals do and put them together. It turns out, birds are a model for human speech.”
Prather, who studied physics as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, eventually became interested in the union between physics and biology. When he began studying songbirds and their cognitive processes, he realized half of the scholarly story was missing, but not before he learned some all-important facts. Songbirds, like humans, learn to sing by imitating their parents, experience regional dialects within the same species, are afflicted by speech impediments like stuttering and ultimately, enjoy a smooth talker. On a very basic level, the factors causing each of these phenomena are biologically similar to the processes of the human brain, but in an organ roughly the size of our thumbnail.
“In a lot of species, males sing and females do not,” Prather said. “The hatchlings are listening and will eventually take information from one or more models, memorize that, recall it from memory and form their own version of it. It’s really strikingly similar how humans acquire the sounds we use in speech and birds acquire the sounds they use in song.”
Nonetheless, half of the story remains untold, Prather said. While a relatively rich catalogue of research exists on male songbirds, inquiry regarding the cognitive processes dictating how adult female birds respond to such songs remains untapped. The desire to unlock such mysteries recently landed Prather a five-year, $850,000 Faculty Early Career Development Grant from the National Science Foundation.
“We want to look at females because they have atrophy, or a reduction in size, of the structures in the brain associated with singing,” Prather said. “So, it appears they can’t sing, but they are the ones who decide what a good song is. They use that evaluation of good or bad song to choose their mates. They evaluate the quality of something they themselves cannot do.
“What we think, is, just like the males are listening to the environment to pick their songs, the females are listening to their environment to learn the range of what’s possible.”
Those female birds, just like humans, are not naturally attracted to one song style over the other. They make subjective, somewhat calculated decisions on which song they prefer. That decision making process is the piece Prather and his lab team hope to ultimately learn more about, with the potential for broader, human implications.
“It’s a preference,” Prather said. “It’s not a whim. There’s something going on that she finds valuable about one song and not valuable about another. We can then find this image of how to do this really complex evaluation behavior in the bird and then use that to understand how decisions occur in the human brain, or how decisions go bad in the human brain, like addictive relapse or obsessive compulsive behavior.”
Prather’s lab, as you might imagine, plays host to several birds, but also graduate students who, like the birds they study, had to make a decision.
“I met Jon at a regional conference in Fort Collins (Colorado) while I was in undergrad and I thought it was cool working with these birds, he had a spot in the lab and it just worked out,” said Karagh Murphy, a fourth-year doctoral student. “The general synergy of the lab is on point. We all work together really well and I love being able to work within a whole species looking at the whole aspect of vocal communication. I use what I study every day.”
Jeff Dunning, another doctoral student originally from Virginia, said his own bird experiments have improved during his time working with Prather and company.
“Birds are really cool because they’re socially complex, but have a relatively simple nervous system,” Dunning said. “You can watch all these really cool things birds can do, but study it in a way that’s understandable. I think one of the most rewarding things about working in this lab is seeing some of the ways the experiments are turning out.”
NSF grants of the sort are an achievement in themselves. Only one grant of the sort was given out in the entire nation last year. In the history of UW, however, there’ve been 28 of the sort. The ball doesn’t stop at laboratory testing either. Through the NSF grant, Prather plans to integrate his research with the entire Wyoming public education system.
“This project will provide training opportunities for four graduate students, 20 undergraduate students and five high school science teachers,” Prather said. “I think this research is inherently appealing, so we will use this to create curriculum modules I will take into my intro bio classroom, they can take into their high school classroom and we’ll figure out ways to make education just more engaging. There’s also a series of science cafés were going to take around the state to give other researchers the opportunity to meet in a relaxed atmosphere and just talk about what’s going on.”
For Prather, at the end of the day, the research still comes back to the primordial boyhood desire of getting some dirt under the fingernails and figuring out how something works.
“I got into science because I wanted to explore how the world works,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to that opportunity. There are really a lot of bright people out there. We’re really fortunate and grateful for this opportunity.”