What really makes the caged bird sing?

History of the study of songbirds’ abilities, and their origins

source: Tim Birkhead
Independent, Review November 30 2001 p8

Bird keeping reached a peak of popularity in the 19th century, and has since declined, though it is interesting to a zoologist. Birds were initially caught for food, or for their song. Nightingales were the most popular songbirds, but then canaries appeared during the late 1400s in continental Europe. Canaries came to be more popular than nightingales, because canaries are easier to keep, and sing throughout the year, while nightingales only sing a few weeks annually.

German breeders pioneered new breeds, such as rolling canaries, with superb singing abilities and rolling songs. There are now some 70 canary breeds. Baron von Pernau was a German scientist who lived from 1660 to 1731, and he realised that canary song was learnt, rather than hard-wired. An eighteenth century English scientist, Daines Barrington, ranked songbirds for their song quality, placing nightingales first, and linnets second. Canaries were not classified in this study but were later placed second. Barrington also had a surgeon dissect birds, and found that well-developed larynxes tended to be associated with the best songs. He found that nightingales had strong larynxes, and males had some muscles that were stronger than those of hens.

Birds’ larynxes are now called srinxes, and modern research has found that males have a larger area in the brain which is linked to song. This area is called the higher vocal centre (HVC). Birds with more complex songs also tend to have larger HVCs. Research on the brains of songbirds carried out in New York, by Rockefeller University’s Fernando Nottebohm has changed ideas about how the brain works. Female canaries given testosterone grow new neurones, and sing as though they were males. He also discovered that the HVC grows and degenerates following seasonal patterns which are linked to seasonal changes in birdsong. This finding runs counter to accepted wisdom that the brain cannot regenerate neurones, and is significant for medical research for humans with brain diseases.

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