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The language of birds: 5. Instinct or learning - nature or nurture?

We move now to the question of how birds acquire the sounds that they employ. Do they have the instinctive ability to sing and call, or do individuals learn to do so in the course of each individual lifetime? Is it inheritance or acquisition? Nature or nurture?

It is at once clear that some birds can learn some sounds, from the abilities of "talking" birds like budgerigars Melopsittacus undulatus which recite nursery rhymes, Indian hill mynahs Gracula religiosa that wish you "Good morning", and parrots home from the sea which are best kept out of vicars' drawing rooms.

But what of wild birds? Was the warbler's warble brought into the world with the hatchling, in its DNA, as part of its genetic endowment? In the case of the imitative marsh warbler we have already discussed this is clearly not so; but what of others with more stereotyped and original warbles? Well, one way to approach the problem would be to take some newly-laid birds' eggs, incubate them separately in soundproof chambers, hand-rear each young one (also in individual and acoustic isolation) and then see as each bird grew up what sounds it produced. At Cambridge, England, some chaffinches were reared in these exacting conditions. Even when nearly a year old they sang very simple songs, representing as the experiment intended, the inborn component of the song. In the wild, a young bird would add the finer details during the first few weeks of its life, having learnt them from its father and other cock chaffinches within hearing; and again in the following year when the wild chaffinch's first breeding season approached, it came to sing in competition with neighbouring territory-holders. Voice prints of the impoverished and the full songs bring out the difference, exposing what is apparently the embroidery that has to be learnt, though bird behaviourists are increasingly reluctant to adhere to the "nature vs nurture" dichotomy because new research is showing development to be very complex.

Sonogram - normal song of Chaffinch (12K)
Normal song
Sonogram - song of isolated Chaffinch (11K)
Song of individual reared in isolation

Sonograms of song phrases of two Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs

 Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
song, recorded by William Thorpe, 1954, England.

Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
Kaspar Hauser chaffinch (raised in acoustic isolation), recorded by William Thorpe, 7 May 1956, England.

Tree pipit Anthus trivialis
song of a bird raised by a Chaffinch, recorded by William Thorpe, 30 May 1956, England.

There are also species whose song (and indeed whose entire vocabulary) is handed down culturally, generation by generation. One such species is the Indian hill mynah, the glossy black bird with the yellow face wattles, so commonly kept in captivity for its talking (i.e. learning) ability. Intrigued by this skill, a British ornithologist went to live in Assam in north-eastern India to study the bird's vocalisations and in particular their origin. He found that the entire repertoire is learnt by ear from its elders by each season's crop of youngsters. The only companion a young caged mynah has is you or me, then it is you or me he is going to copy. Hence the "talking" mynah. If, however, he is in a natural state then he copies his own kind and normally no others. Wild mynahs copy none but their kin. But since there are many others he could copy how does the bird choose? The suggestion is that each learning species has an innate predisposition to attend only to the language of its own species; it employs a "neural template".

No-one knows the relative importance of inheritance and learning in each and every one of the world's 9,000 species of bird. Comparatively few have been studied. But among the typical songbirds it seems that learning partly by imitating elders as in the chaffinch example is probably quite widespread.

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