If songbirds could appear on “The Masked Singer” reality TV competition, zebra finches would likely steal the show. That’s because they can rapidly memorize the signature sounds of at least 50 different members of their flock, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.
In findings recently published in the journal Science Advances, these boisterous, red-beaked songbirds, known as zebra finches, have been shown to pick one another out of a crowd (or flock) based on a particular peer’s distinct song or contact call.
Like humans who can instantly tell which friend or relative is calling by the timbre of the person’s voice, zebra finches have a near-human capacity for language mapping. Moreover, they can remember each other’s unique vocalizations for months and perhaps longer, the findings suggest.
“The amazing auditory memory of zebra finches shows that birds’ brains are highly adapted for sophisticated social communication,” said study lead author Frederic Theunissen, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology, integrative biology and neuroscience.
Theunissen and fellow researchers sought to gauge the scope and magnitude of zebra finches’ ability to identify their feathered peers based purely on their unique sounds. As a result, they found that the birds, which mate for life, performed even better than anticipated.
“For animals, the ability to recognize the source and meaning of a cohort member’s call requires complex mapping skills, and this is something zebra finches have clearly mastered,” Theunissen said.
A pioneer in the study of bird and human auditory communication for at least two decades, Theunissen acquired a fascination and admiration for the communication skills of zebra finches through his collaboration with UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Julie Elie, a neuroethologist who has studied zebra finches in the forests of their native Australia.