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Songbirds can learn new tunes two different ways

"These results indicate that in zebra finches, learning by trial and error is the more robust method," researcher Richard Hahnloser said.

By Brooks Hays
Songbirds can learn new tunes two different ways
When songbirds like zebra finches learn through trial and error, they're better able to adapt the acquired for new and different problems. Photo by Pixabay/CC

Aug. 13 (UPI) -- Songbirds can learn two different ways, a new study showed. However, birds who learned through trial and error were better able to use their knowledge to solve new and different problems.

In lab experiments, scientists found zebra finches tasked with differentiating between long and short calls took longer to master the ability when they learned only through trial and error. Birds who learned by watching their peers were able to differentiate between the two calls more quickly.

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However, knowledge acquired through trial and error proved more adaptive. In a follow up test, birds were tasked with differentiating between long and short calls made by a different bird species. The birds who learned through trial and error completed the task more quickly.

"These results indicate that in zebra finches, learning by trial and error is the more robust method," Richard Hahnloser, professor at ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich, said in a news release. "Birds that learned a perceptual skill through trial and error were better able to generalize and adapt that skill to new situations than those that learned it through observation."

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In the test, birds were placed in two side by side cages. The first bird was tested, while the second watched the learning process. Scientists played bird songs featuring either long or short calls. Longer calls were followed by a puff of foul-smelling air. Birds who learned to differentiate between the two different types of songs were able to avoid the acrid fumes.

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The first bird was forced to learn through trial and error, while the second bird gained the advantage of having watched the learning process unfold.

The findings, published this week in the journal Nature Communications, echo the results of studies analyzing learning among human children, which have shown active learning -- learning through experimentation and trial and error -- yields longer-lasting, adaptable knowledge.

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Learning through observation, however, produces more immediate results. In the classroom, teachers often encourage both kinds of learning.

"Both methods have their advantages, but learning through observation is faster," said Hahnloser.

Analysis of neural activity showed observational learning involved a greater number of neurons -- but weaker neurons. Trial and error learning triggered activity among fewer, but stronger neurons.

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"When observing, the birds may focus on a large number of song details, many of which are irrelevant for solving the problem at hand," Hahnloser said. "In the trial-and-error case, they remember fewer details but focus on the most prominent aspects of the song, such as its duration."

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