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Songs in Flight


Pursuing Learning in Songbirds

Timothy DeVoogd

Timothy DeVoogd
Psychology/Neurobiology and Behavior

There are many kinds of birds—some walk, some swim, and of course there are the ones that fly. Some of them have nice songs. That was the sum of my knowledge about the biology, behavior, or evolution of birds as I entered my last year of graduate school. I had been studying neural plasticity in rats, because they were the primary animal system in which to study neurobiology. Neural plasticity is the capacity of neurons—particularly synapses between neurons—to modify their form in order to alter their function in response to experiences (learning).

To Study Learning—In Birds!

In November of that year, I was attending the Society for Neuroscience Meeting and went to a plenary talk by Fernando Nottebohm of Rockefeller University. He spoke to 1,200 neuroscientists about his recent discovery that a small number of clearly delineated brain regions appeared to be dedicated to song production in canaries. He had found that these regions were bigger in males than females and bigger in spring than in fall, parallel to differences in singing. Young male canaries learn how to sing from adult males. Nottebohm also found that these brain areas could not be found in species like pigeons or chickens that do not learn their vocalizations. “It would be wonderful to study learning in an animal like that!” I gushed to one of my professors with whom I was sitting. She replied that Nottebohm was a friend and asked if I wanted to meet him…and I have been doing research on synaptic plasticity in birds ever since.


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