Birdsong Variation Enables Learning

December 20, 2007

Why is it that even the best athletes and musicians do not always perform highly practiced movements as well as they could? One suggestion is that this is all part of a natural variation. But a paper in the December 20, 2007 Nature indicates that subtle variability is a means of achieving a trial-and-error improvement in performance.

Evren Tumer and Michael Brainard investigated changes in the song of adult Bengalese finches (Lonchura striata). Birdsong is a complex learned skill requiring precise and rapid vocal control. The team showed that the birds were continuously monitoring the consequences of minute variations in their song and were using the information to optimize their output.
The researchers suggest that these tiny variations reflect experimentation by the nervous system to optimize performance.

Abstract © 2007, Nature

“Performance variability enables adaptive plasticity of ‘crystallized’ adult birdsong,” Evren C. Tumer, Michael S. Brainard, December 20, 2007. Nature
(Full text was available free on the Nature site as of 12 23 07)

Evren Tumer, University of California, San Francisco

UCSF Press Release