What they do for love

It’s cool when my job — covering health — intersects with my play — watching birds.
So it was in the February 2013 edition of “Brain in the News” (yes, there really is such a thing), which crossed my desk in, uh, March.
The lede article, “The Melody of Finches,” was written by Jim Schnabel, originally for a publication called the NYU Physician. His subject: a New York University neuroscientist named Michael A. Long who studies Australian zebra finches.
Long has hundreds of zebra finches in his aviary at NYU, Schabel writes.
What makes these little birds interesting is their love song.
“When the time comes for courting, these small, dusty gray birds let out a song that has all the allure of a wheezing rubber duck,” Schnabel writes. “Amazingly, this repetitive, brrapping sound romances a female finch.”
Long is interested because the song is an example of “complex learned behavior.”
It turns out that the young male zebra finch spends months learning this song from its father, repeating it several hundred thousand times in the process.
And you thought it was hard listening to your son practice his clarinet.
Occasionally a youngster doesn’t get it, and that’s not good.
If it can’t produce the song, the young finch makes “a plaintive screech that leaves female finches cold, the songbird equivalent of leaving the bar alone,” Schnabel writes.
Long’s work involves studying the high vocal center — HVC — of the male zebra finch brain, from whence the song comes.
What goes on in the HVC is amazing: a chain of neurons, firing off at 10-millisecond intervals for about 100 distinct intervals.
The result being Love, Zebra Finch Style.

Your bird stories and pictures sincerely welcome at: jlundy@duluthnews.com.

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