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Bengalese Finch

The vocal muscles of songbirds work just like those of human speaks and singers a study has shown. The research on Benglese finches showed that each of their vocal muscles can change its function to help produce different parameters of sounds, in a manner similar to that of a trained opera singer.

"Our research suggests that producing really complex song relies on the ability of the songbirds' brains to direct complicated changes in combinations of muscles," said Samuel Sober, Assistant Professor of the Department of Biology at Emory University and lead author of the study. "In terms of vocal control, the bird brain appears as complicated and wonderful as the human brain,” he added.

Pitch, for example, is important to songbird vocalization, but there is no single muscle devoted to controlling it.

Dr. Sober said, “They don't just contract one muscle to change pitch. They have to activate a lot of different muscles in concert, and these changes are different for different vocalizations. Depending on what syllable the bird is singing, a particular muscle might increase pitch or decrease pitch."

Previous research has revealed some of the vocal mechanisms within the human “voice box” or larynx which houses the vocal cords and an array of muscles that help to control pitch, amplitude and timbre.

Instead of a larynx, birds have a vocal organ called the syrinx, which holds the vocal cords deeper in their bodies. While humans have one set of vocal cords, a songbird has two sets, enabling it to produce two different sounds simultaneously in harmony with itself.

Earlier studies on birds had looked at brain activity and how it relates to behaviours but the team from Emory, along with colleagues from the University of Southern Denmark and the Georgia Institute of Technology, wanted to understand how the muscles that translate the brain’s output to behaviour worked.

“We wanted to understand the physics and biomechanics of what a songbird's muscles are doing while singing," Dr. Sober said.

The team of biologists devised a method that used electromyography (EMG) to measure how the neural activity of the birds activates the production of a particular sound through the flexing of a particular vocal muscle.

The results, which were published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed the complex redundancy of the songbird’s vocal muscles and how complicated the neural computations are to control this behaviour.

Bengalese finches, which are also known as society finches, are poplar domesticated cage birds not found in the wild. They are well adapted to captivity and the company of humans and have been used extensively in scientific studies into imprinting and bird vocalizations.

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