The Zebra Finch holds a unique position in the world of birds and even in the world of science as a whole. Much like mice and fruit flies, this bird has been used to a great extent by science to further our understanding of biology as a whole. The Zebra Finch Brain Architecture Program has been running since the early 2000s and is our foremost attempt to understand the biology of bird song. By being able to study the neurological and behavioural patterns of the Zebra Finch at a molecular level, scientists have been able to discover how the personal experiences of individual birds modify its brain. This research has given important insights into the wiring of the human brain too.
You may ask, why, of all birds, was the Zebra Finch selected? The answer is actually rather simple: they tick all the boxes needed for study. They are easily tamed, easy to breed (which they happily do all year round) and most importantly, their ability to sing is only partially inbuilt and their song changes with their surroundings and experiences.
Zebra Finches have given us unparallelled insight into the biology of bird song
To make a long story short, the research done on Zebra Finches has shown us that if interfered with from a young age, the birds song will be permanently limited or incomplete. The birds start singing at around 20 days old, learning from their elders. At 35 days old, if not removed from their musical environment, their knowledge of the basic song structure will be complete. After around 2 months they will sing consistently and at 3 months old they’ll be ready for their first mating season. During this season each bird sings a slightly different song, hoping to court a mate.
In addition to mapping this pattern - and the effects on song and brain when the pattern is disrupted - the researchers are getting to grips with how the finch uses its voice in day-to-day life. The result is a whole atlas of Zebra Finch brain scans which are available online, if you’re interested.