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Speech and Birdsong – Genetics of Vocal Learning
Written by Bob Sundstrom
This is BirdNote.
Some birds are born with the ability to sing. [Song of the Willow Flycatcher]
And some birds learn to do it while they're young. [American Robin song]
Just like humans, who have to learn to speak. [Baby vocal sounds]
It’s a key distinction - innate ability versus learned. Because it turns out that vocal learning in songbirds and humans may have more in common than anyone suspected.
Recent DNA research reveals that songbirds and humans share a consistent set of roughly 50 genes that appear crucial to vocal learning. When these genes are active in humans, they are also active in songbirds. There’s a common pattern that applies to very different crea-tures that share a need to learn complex songs and speech. The clincher is that birds that don’t learn songs - and primates that don’t speak - lack this genetic set-up.
Discovery of this genetic commonality was headline news when the research results were published in December 2014. It's a breakthrough in our understanding of the mechanisms involved in vocal learning. And it's possible that because scientists now understand the genetic similarities between speech and birdsong learning, they can use that insight to study human speech acquisition in new ways. [American Robin song, ML 94383, 0.10-.14]
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Willow Flycatcher  recorded by C A Marantz; American Robin  recorded by W L Hershberger.
'Eureka' by Jim O'Rourke, from the album 'Eureka' 1999 Domino Recording Company.
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black
© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org March 2015 Narrator: Mary McCann
ID# song-11-2015-03-03 song-11