Vocal learning abilities are linked to birds’ brain size and problem-solving abilities

Songbirds with more complex vocal learning skills were better problem solvers and had larger brains relative to body size.

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european stars, Common Starling, were remarkably adept at learning and producing a wide repertoire of whistles, calls, tunes and songs. Their reflective abilities are legendary and have long been admired by human listeners – so much so that even the famous composer and musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived with a star in his bird zoo. Mozart is thought to have taught his beloved Starling to whistle the opening bars of the third movement. A musical comedyIt is „Vocal Autograph of a Starling,” inspired by Mozart’s bird companion (ref)

But one thing Mozart never knew about his starling was that this bird might be very good at solving puzzles. Or a recently published study reports: Songbirds, like starlings, readily learn complex vocalizations and are excellent problem solvers.

„There is a long-standing hypothesis that only highly intelligent animals are capable of complex vocal learning,” said the study’s lead author, ecologist and neuroscientist Jean-Nicolas Audet, a postdoctoral research associate. Rockefeller Universitysaid in a press release.

„If that’s true, complex voice learners should be better at cognitive tasks,” Dr. Audet added, „but no one has ever demonstrated that before.”

Only a few mammal and bird species are capable of learning and producing complex vocal sounds, including parrots, hummingbirds, and songbirds.

The study was conducted under the direction of Erich Jarvis, a professor at Rockefeller University. Professor Jarvis leads a team of researchers investigating the genes and molecular mechanisms underlying the anatomical and functional pathways involved in learning complex behaviors such as singing and speaking. By unraveling vocal learning in birds and mammals, Jarvis and his collaborators are working to better understand human speech disorders so they can help restore some voices silenced by disability or disease. Animal models Professor Jarvis studies include songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds.

To test whether vocal learning is linked to songbirds’ problem-solving abilities, Dr. Audet and colleagues fog-captured hundreds of songbirds from 21 species over three years at Rockefeller University. Field Study Centre. This 1200-acre nature reserve is located 80 miles north of the Rockefeller University campus and encompasses a variety of ecosystems in New York’s Hudson Valley.

„This is a protected area, which means the animals have minimal exposure to humans,” said biologist Melanie Coutre, a research assistant and collaborator on the study. „It’s great for studying the behaviors of wild birds—what they can do, how they respond to cognitive tasks.”

To determine whether vocal learning is linked to problem-solving skills in songbirds, Dr. Audet and colleagues began by ranking the complexity of study birds’ vocal learning skills according to three metrics (Figure 1): first, whether birds can learn new calls throughout their lifetime (open learners); secondly, how many calls and songs were in their set; Third, whether they can mimic other organisms.

It is interesting to note that the three species of songbirds included in this study mimic other species, which Dr. Audet described as „the epitome of vocal learning.” These birds include bluejays, gray catbirds and Mozart’s aural inspiration, starlings. Also, Dr Audet and colleagues ranked these three species highest in vocal learning ability.

Dr Audet and collaborators then tested the problem-solving skills of 214 birds from 23 species (including two laboratory-bred birds whose scores were added to those of wild-caught birds). The study birds were challenged to solve seven cognitive tests, including their ability to solve problems by pulling a stick, piercing foil, or removing a lid to get to a treat. The birds were also tested by placing an obvious obstacle between each bird and a palatable snack, and how long it took the bird to figure out where to go around this obstacle to get the treat, and whether the study birds could learn to associate a particular color with a food reward and how much they would the next day when the associated color changed. Adapted quickly.

Of all the birds studied, starlings, bluejays and catbirds again proved to be the most adept at solving puzzles. Statistical analyzes revealed that puzzle-solving ability was indeed related to vocal learning abilities, and the better a bird was at solving puzzles, the more complex its vocal learning ability. In addition, Dr. Audet and collaborators found that birds that were better at navigating around invisible obstacles to get a treat had more advanced vocal learning skills.

Dr. Audet and colleagues measured brain volume in their study birds. They found that the most advanced vocal learners and problem solvers had larger brains relative to their body size. This raises the question: Where does problem solving occur in the bird’s brain?

„Our next step is to look at the brains of more complex organisms and try to understand why they are better at problem solving and vocal learning,” said Dr Audet. „We have a good idea of ​​where vocal learning happens in the brain, but the location of problem solving is still unclear.”

This study suggests that problem solving, vocal learning and brain size may have evolved together. Professor Jarvis referred to this set of characteristics as the „vocal learning cognitive complex”.

„Our findings help support a previously unproven idea: that the evolution of complex behavior, such as spoken language, depends on vocal learning, and is associated with the co-evolution of other complex behaviors.”


Jean-Nicolas Audet, Mélanie Couture and Erich D. Jarvis (2023). Songbird species exhibiting more complex vocal learning are better problem solvers and have larger brains, Science 381(6663):1170-1175| doi:10.1126/science.adh3428

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