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Research Finds the Zebra Finch Has Great Communication Skills


A recent study published in the journal Scientific advances found that zebra finches can remember voices just as much as humans. According to research from the University of California, Berkeley, these songbirds recognize each other based on a song or contact call. They have the ability to quickly memorize different sounds from at least 50 members of their herd.

The red-billed zebra finch can pick up on specific tones from familiar finches, just like humans do with their friends. When a friend calls or we hear their voice in a crowd, we can instantly distinguish them. Zebra finches have almost this same ability to map language and communicate with other birds. According to the study, they also have the uncanny ability to remember the various vocalizations of others for months or even longer.

“The amazing auditory memory of zebra finches shows that the brain of birds is highly adapted for sophisticated social communication,” said lead study author Frederic Theunissen, a professor of psychology, integrative biology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

Theunissen and a team of researchers wanted to investigate the range and magnitude of songbirds to distinguish vocalizations. Their findings showed that the birds performed even better than they expected.

“For animals, the ability to recognize the source and meaning of a cohort member’s call requires complex mapping skills, and this is something that zebra finches have clearly mastered,” Theunissen said.

Theunissen has studied the communication patterns of birds and humans for about two decades. He collaborated with UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Julie Elie, a neuroethologist who has studied zebra finches in Australia. His work has provided fascinating insight into the communication skills and vocalizations of this songbird.

Fun facts about the zebra finch

  • Zebra finches are the most popular finch species.
  • Its useful life is about 10 years.
  • While the zebra finch it is small, it is not the smallest of the finch species.
  • The species takes its name from the zebra-shaped stripes on its neck, chest, and tail.
  • You can tell the males from the females by the color of their beaks. Males have red beaks and females orange.
  • They originated in the remote desert areas of Central Australia, but also thrive in Timor and Indonesia.
  • Zebra finches love to sing, while females generally do not. This is because males use the songs as mating calls.
  • This bird does not do well alone. In fact, they thrive when kept in pairs. They make a wonderful beginner pet as they don’t need a lot of care or time commitment.
  • While these birds love to be sociable with each other, they do not bond strongly with people. However, with training, a pet bird will eventually reach your hand.

The zebra finch generally travels in colonies of 50 to 100 birds, flying apart and then regrouping later. Their songs are usually mating calls. However, they also use distance calls to locate each other.

“They have what we call a ‘fusion fission’ partnership, where they break up and then get back together,” Theunissen said. “They don’t want to be separated from the herd, so if one of them gets lost, they can yell ‘Hey Ted, we’re here.’ Or, if one of them is sitting in a nest while the other is looking for food, one could call to ask if it is safe to return to the nest. “
Theunissen has a few dozen zebra finches in aviaries on and around the UC Berkeley campus. He used 20 of them in the study on communication skills and vocalizations.

The study of the zebra finch

In the two-part experiment, the team trained 20 captive zebra finches to recognize different birds based on their vocalizations. First they trained half of the birds to memorize songs and the other half learned to recognize distance or contact calls. Then they changed the tasks so that the other half of the herd could learn.

Then, they placed each zebra finch, one by one, in a chamber where they heard sounds as part of a reward system. By doing this, the team wanted the birds to memorize different interpretations of the zebra finches’ sounds.

When they pecked at a key inside the chamber, the birds triggered an audio recording of zebra finches. If they waited until the six-second recording stopped, the researchers rewarded them with birdseed as a small gift. However, if they pecked before the recording ended, they would move on to the next one. The birds went through various tests to learn which vocalizations would lead to a reward and which they should skip.

After this, the zebra finch flock had more audio recordings. of different birds. This would allow them to know which vocalizations came from which birds. They quickly learned the different sounds of the 16 different zebra finches.

Zebra finches performed so well that four of them faced an even greater challenge of distinguishing between 56 different finches. On average, the birds could recognize 42 different zebra finches based on their different sounds. Amazingly, they were still able to identify the birds based on these unique vocalizations even a month later.

“I’m really impressed by the spectacular memory abilities zebra finches possess in interpreting communication calls,” Theunissen said. “Previous research shows that songbirds are able to use simple syntax to generate complex meanings and that, in many species of birds, a song is learned by imitation. It is now clear that the songbird brain is wired for vocal communication. “

Final thoughts on studying the zebra finch’s profound communication skills

Zebra finches They are adorable songbirds that make wonderful pets, even if you’ve never owned a bird before. Males love to sing, and both males and females have different vocalizations. They have the ability to recognize various sounds from different birds, just as humans can learn the voices of friends and family.

This innate ability to distinguish between birds helps them learn the location and mating of others. Even after months have passed, these birds can still remember the unique sounds of each other. If you have one, you can even play music or sing to your zebra finch for inspiration!


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