Above: new research has found that zebra finches can identify at least 50 members of their flock from their signature sounds up to a month later. © Shutterstock.com/Chris Watson


ZEBRA FINCHES ARE quick learners when it comes to language. Not only can they rapidly memorise signature sounds of at least 50 members of their flock in order to pick them out from the crowd, new research reveals that they remember these unique calls for up to a month.

“The amazing auditory memory of zebra finches shows that birds’ brains are highly adapted for sophisticated social communication,” said study lead author Frederic Theunissen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who carried out the research.

“They have what we call a ‘fusion fission’ society, where they split up and then come back together. They don’t want to separate from the flock, and so, if one gets lost, they might call out ‘Hey, Ted, we’re right here’. Or, if one is sitting in a nest while the other is foraging, one might call out to ask if it’s safe to return to the nest.”

Effective vocal communication often requires the listener to recognise the identity of the vocaliser, for which it needs the ability to form auditory memories.

When testing the memory capacity of this social songbird, researchers found that male and female zebra finches, when challenged to distinguish between 56 different fellow finches could, on average, recognise 42 of them, even up to a month later.

Captive zebbies were trained to distinguish between different birds and their vocalisations by memorising songs and contact calls. Then, one at a time, they listened to sounds as part of a reward system, learning which vocalisations would yield bird seed, and which ones to skip.

“I am really impressed by the spectacular memory abilities that zebra finches possess in order to interpret communication calls,” prof Theunissen said. “It is now clear that the songbird brain is wired for vocal communication.”

The study findings have been published in the journal Science Advances.

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