Published online 15 August 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1039


Sing me something smart

Brainy birds have the best tunes — and the most pulling power.

When shopping for a mate, female zebra finches might choose males with the sweetest song because singing ability advertises intellectual prowess.

Neeltje Boogert of McGill University in Montreal, found that the males who sang the most complex melodies were also quicker at solving a problem to find food. Boogert presented her research on 11 August at the International Behavioral Ecology Congress at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

bird"155", as he's known to his friends, has a more complex song than..Guy L'Heureux, McGill University

"Females might use song complexity as an indicator of how smart the male is," Boogert says. Several studies have shown that females prefer males that sing long, complex tunes. Boogert's experiment is the first to test the idea that fancier songs showcase higher general intelligence.

bird...duller and simpler 170Guy L'Heureux, McGill University

Boogert and her colleagues recorded 27 male zebra finches serenading a female. Each male sings a unique tune over and over. The researchers analyzed the songs to count how many 'elements', the simplest building blocks of birdsong, each finch used. Melodies ranged from a minimalist eight elements to a florid 19, they found.

Putting your brain where your beak is

The same finches then faced a puzzle. Boogert hid millet seeds in small wells in a wooden board. The finches had to peer into the wells to find the seeds, and in later trials had to pry lids off the wells to get the snack. Some figured it out in four tries, others still hadn't mastered the lid after 17 attempts.

Birds with more elements in their songs solved the puzzle in fewer trials. Boogert notes that the ability to spot and prise out food in dense vegetation or mud is just the sort of thing a female might be looking for — skills that will help feed her chicks, and genes that will make those chicks good foragers when they grow up.

"Neeltje is the first to experimentally demonstrate a link between the expression of song and some aspect of cognition that really matters," says Steve Nowicki, who studies bird behaviour at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and was not involved with the project. "It's a really important study."

Boogert and Nowicki hope to collaborate, investigating whether the relationship between song and smarts holds true for wild birds.

"What females are really interested in is how smart you are," Nowicki says. "As an academic, I like to see that message." 

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