Nashville Scientists Using 'Mini Recording Studios' To Study Bird Sounds

Posted at 7:04 AM, Sep 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-17 08:04:27-04

There are recording studios all over Nashville, but this one is for the birds. At first it looks like a room filled with dozens of Igloo coolers. Then you hear them: dozens of Zebra finches in mini recording studios. 

"People tend to associate mice or rats with medical center research so it's very unusual and unique for Vanderbilt," said Vanderbilt University PhD candidate Kate Snyder.  

The cages are lined with professional acoustic foam and rigged with microphones.

"I learned about the parallels between song birds and humans and specifically vocal learning," said Snyder. 

Together, with biological sciences professor Nicole Creanza, they're working on a study that looks at birds and how they learn to sing.

"Some of the parallels that song birds have with humans are basically they don't hatch knowing what song to sing. Just like human babies aren't born knowing what language to speak," she said. 

And just like babies, the young finches listen to the adult birds. After about 30 days, they start making random noises. They switch from baby-like begging calls then try to pronounce full syllables.

"They only learn one song. They start learning at 30 days old and they stop learning at 90 days. And that one song that they produce at 90 days is the song that they'll sing for the rest of their life," she said. 

By introducing hardships to the birds, researchers are hoping to learn how humans develop language problems, like a stutter.

"Essentially we are comparing the birds that have to forage [for food] and the birds that just have a really easy, real privileged life," she said. 

Both researchers say they hope by listening and comparing the bird songs they can shed light on human speech development.