What really makes the caged bird sing

The sweet music of a songbird is actually the product of powerful vocal cords and a sophisticated brain, says Tim Birkhead - and it could point the way forward for important neurological research

This weekend, the National Cage Bird Show will take place in Birmingham. Many consider this event an anachronism, an unpleasant reminder of the past, when small birds were more widely abused. But for the thousands of enthusiasts who will visit it, the exhibition is part of a valiant effort to maintain a historic tradition that reached its peak in the latter part of the 19th century. Since then, bird-keeping has been in decline because it is considered cruel, and recent television documentaries have portrayed bird fanciers as sad and stupid people – bird-brained, in fact. But as a professional zoologist, I would disagree.

Birds have fascinated people for a long time. In the past they were caught for two things: for food or for their song. Plump and tender birds like larks, wheatears and ortolans were eaten – usually by the wealthy – as they still are in Italy. Birds with a good voice, like the nightingale, were kept for their song. If they were good looking and sang half-decently, like the goldfinch, they were also kept – but only the males, for only males sing; females were eaten.

For aeons the nightingale was the songbird par excellence. It was plain in appearance, but its voice was unsurpassed. But after the canary first appeared as a cage bird on mainland Europe in the late 1400s, it nudged the nightingale off its premier perch. Nightingales were difficult to keep, and sang only for a few weeks each year, whereas the canary (which was equally dull to look at, since the wild bird is streaky green, not yellow) had a voice nearly as good, was easy to keep and would sing through much of the year.

The people who kept canaries and other songbirds were of three types: those who simply liked their sound – birdsong was like having Radio 1 on in the background; those who used their charges to enhance their own status through singing contests; and thirdly, those (a minority) who actually studied them.

Singing for status was an all-consuming passion, and fanciers often competed using wild-caught goldfinches and chaffinches. They also used the canary – but the canary was a different case because, as it was a costly import, great efforts were made to rear it in captivity, and once it was breeding, it could be artificially selected. The Germans led the way, and focused on producing superb songsters which, because of their rolling song, were to become known as roller canaries. From these Teutonic beginnings, all the 70 or so canary breeds that are now in existence developed.

The Germans also led the way when it came to science. The key player was the almost unheard-of Baron von Pernau (1660-1731), a wealthy politician whose observations of both wild and captive birds anticipated the work of Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel prize-winning zoologist, by almost two centuries. While English intellectuals were still writing banal descriptions of what birds looked like, Pernau was describing how they behaved, and using ingenious methods to draw remarkably prescient conclusions. He was especially interested in how birds acquire their song, and he was the first to recognise that songs weren't hard-wired in the brain, as most people believed, but that learning was the key to a bird's singing success.

Seventy years later in England, the Honourable Daines Barrington (the naturalist Gilbert White's correspondent) took these investigations a step further. Unaware of Pernau's work, Barrington claimed his own as the first scientific study of birdsong. His investigations took the form of two main activities. In 1773 he compiled a set of criteria to rank the quality of song of difference species. On the basis of "compass" and "sprightliness", the nightingale came top, with 90 out of a possible 100 points, followed by the linnet with 70 points: he didn't score the canary, but a later study put the canary in second place.

For the second part of Barrington's study, he asked the pioneer surgeon John Hunter to dissect some birds and to examine their vocal cords. The species with the best song was also found to have the best developed larynx. "Mr Hunter found the muscles of the larynx to be stronger in the nightingale, and in all those instances where he dissected both cock and hen that the same muscles were stronger in the cock," Barrington wrote.

Research completed in the last few years has found that those sexual differences in the larynx (now referred to as the syrinx – the songbirds' voice box) are also reflected in the brain. The region of a birds' brain responsible for song, the higher vocal centre (HVC) is up to four times bigger in males than in females. Moreover, because song-learning requires considerable brain power, the HVC is also bigger in those species which sing more complex songs. Female birds can manage with a smaller HVC, because processing male song and deciding who sings well or indifferently is less demanding than producing the song in the first place.

If they could see us today, Pernau and Barrington would be amazed to discover how the study of song-learning in little birds now provides a general model for how the brain – including our own – works. Through trying to understand how songbirds sing, Fernando Nottebohm at the Rockefeller University in New York has discovered something that has shaken the very foundations of brain research: the canary's brain is capable of regrowing neurones, once considered an impossibility. Nottebohm found that if he gave a female canary a shot of testosterone, she would start to sing like a male – precisely because her HVC had grown new neurones and increased in size.

The second thing that he found was that the seasonal occurrence of birdsong matched the seasonal growth and degeneration of the HVC. In both cases, the changes were almost unbelievable, because brains simply were not supposed to do that. The established view, based on studies of rats, monkeys and humans, was that we are born with all the neurones we will ever get, and if we lose any, say, through a brain injury, there are no replacements and we have to manage with what we have left. The take-home message from Nottebohm's research is that if we can find out how birds do it, it may be possible to persuade human brain cells to regrow – and this may ultimately provide a cure for degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson's.

So if you go to the National Cage Bird exhibition in Birmingham next weekend, spare a thought for the birds that are singing away – and remember that neither they, nor the bird fanciers, are as daft as some people think.

Professor TR Birkhead is in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
music
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003