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Eavesdropping comes naturally to young song sparrows

ult sparrows for two months. Song sparrows typically have repertoires of about 10 songs, and the tutors in the study had no song types in common. That meant the young birds heard 40 different songs. The young birds were rotated between two rooms, each of which housed two of the adult tutors. The young sparrows, which had not begun to sing, were exposed to the tutor for four days and then rotated to the other room where they heard the songs of the other two tutors for four days. At the end of two months the young birds were isolated from hearing one another or the tutors.

The second phase of the study began when the birds were about 8 months old. This time only two of the adult tutors were used. Each young bird was paired up with an adult in a large chamber and their vocal interactions were recorded and played to a second young bird in a separate chamber. The next day, the second young bird was paired with a second tutor and the first young sparrow, now in a separate chamber by himself, overhead their interactions.

The songs of all of the young sparrows were recorded when they were nearly a year old, as were the songs of the tutors. Analysis showed that 51 percent of the young birds’ songs were learned from tutors they overheard interacting with another sparrow in the second phase of the study. Just 19 percent came from interacting directly with a tutor. The remaining 30 percent of songs were acquired when they were listening to tutors early in life.

Beecher thinks the young birds learn more by eavesdropping because it is less threatening than interacting face-to-face with an adult. In a parallel line of research, Beecher and his colleagues are tracking song sparrows by radio in the field. Preliminary analysis of the tracking data suggests that young birds don’t have many direct interactions with adults, and so are likely to be learning their songs by eavesdropping.

When it comes to research about how babies learn l
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Source:University of Washington


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