The Zebra finch holds a unique position in the bird world. Like mice and fruit flies, it has been used extensively by science to further our understanding of biology. The Zebra Finch Brain Architecture Project has been running since the 2000s, the foremost attempt to understand the biology of bird song. By studying the neurological and behavioural patterns of Zebra finches at brain and molecular level, scientists have been able to discover how a bird’s experience modifies its brain, which in turn has given important insights into the wiring of the human brain too.
Why Zebra finches rather than any other bird? The answer is that they tick all the boxes – they’re easily tamed; they’re easy to breed; they happily do so all year round; they reach sexual maturity after just 90 days; and – most importantly – their ability to sing is only partly inbuilt (the word for this is oscine, from the Latin for ‘songbird’). Environment, and an ability to listen and learn, all shape the final repertoire of an adult Zebra finch.
Zebra Finch - giving us insights into the biology of bird song
In brief, the research has demonstrated how interfering with the development of song during the early weeks of a cock bird’s life leads to a permanently limited or incomplete set of vocalisations. It appears that Zebra finches begin to use their song skills when just 20 days old, learning from their elders. After 35 days, if they are not removed from the musical environment, their assimilation of the basic song structure is complete. After 60 days they sing consistently, and at 90 days – in time for their first mating season – they are able to make the all-important song variations upon which their fitness to mate (as judged by the hen birds) depends.
In addition to mapping this pattern – and the effects on song and brain when the pattern is disrupted – the researchers are also getting to grips with how the finch uses its voice in day-to-day interactions. The result is a whole atlas of Zebra finch brain scans - now available online, if you’re interested.