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“When it comes to vocal communication, we have more in common with birds than any other kind of animal, including other primate”


footer_aaasParroting Genes

July 23, 2012

Birds and people have similar genes for learning and producing vocalizations.



The genes behind speech…I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

(SFX: Squawks of parrots)

These parrots might not sound much like me, but some of the same genes are activated when I talk as when they squawk. One of these shared genes is called egr-1, according to Duke University neurobiologist Erich Jarvis.

ERICH JARVIS (Duke University):

And it’s regulated in these song learning birds when they produce their imitating sounds. We think it’s also regulated in human brains as I’m speaking right now to control those brain circuits involved in speech.


Sequencing the genes involved in bird and human vocalizations would help scientists understand how we learn to speak. But Jarvis says these genes have DNA that’s particularly difficult to decode. He and his colleagues have now developed a mathematical technique that solves the problem. He says the method could also be helpful in the fight against cancer, because cancer cells often contain similarly hard-to-sequence DNA as well. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Parrot Mimicry Circuit

June 29, 2015

A newly discovered brain structure in parrots hints at new mechanisms in brain evolution.



Disco Courtesy Judy Bolton

Watch Disco the Parakeet talk! (Courtesy of Judy Bolton)

Evolutionary insights from some birdbrains. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

[My name is Disco; I’m a parakeet.]

Parrots have the rare ability to imitate vocalizations and in the journal PLoS ONE, Duke neurobiologists Erich Jarvis, Mukta Chakraborty and their colleagues report that parrots’ brains make them especially good at it.

ERICH JARVIS (Duke University):

We found that they actually have an extra song-learning circuit that we don’t find in the other species that can imitate vocalizations.


What’s more, the extra circuit appears to be a duplicate of the regular vocal circuit parrots share with other birds. According to Jarvis, this suggests that brains don’t just evolve bit by bit—entire neural circuits can be copied and pasted, like paragraphs in a document. There’s no known mechanism of how that might happen. But if true, it could have profound implications for how brains evolve, not only in birds, but in humans and other animals as well. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Counting Parrot

October 31, 2005

Birdbrain is a common insult. But one parrot is proving that birds may be more intelligent than we suppose.


What’s none got to do with it? I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Alex is a 28-year-old African grey parrot. Brandeis University comparative psychologist Irene Pepperberg has taught him to identify colors, shapes, objects, and numbers.

IRENE PEPPERBERG (Brandeis University):
Alex, how many green wool?

Alex: “One.”

OK, Good parrot.

Now Alex has become the first bird to understand the concept of zero, which is hard even for children. During a training session, he spontaneously used the word “none” to describe the absence of objects on a tray.

Now he had understood none in terms of absence of same or different in two objects, but he had never been trained using none for a quantity.

Pepperberg says Alex is helping to convince people that even birdbrains are capable of abstract thought. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Parrot Learning

February 15, 2002

Parrots learn to put together words much like babies do.

Birdsong & Language Genes

December 22, 2014

Birds and humans share remarkable similarities in the expression of genes involved in vocal communication in the brain.



Mickael DIA Bluethroat Flickr

Singing in the genes. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

When it comes to vocal communication, we have more in common with birds than any other kind of animal, including other primates – – from the way babies learn to talk the complexity of our vocalizations. Now, researchers have found that this is due to similar gene activity in the brain. Duke neuroscientist Erich Jarvis and his team compared gene expression in the brains of birds and humans.

ERICH JARVIS (Duke University):

We found 55 genes that are shared in increased or decreased synthesis in the brain areas for speech in humans and the brain areas for song learning in parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds. What’s remarkable to me is that it’s s not just one gene, two or even five genes. It’s tens of genes that show convergence, which suggests that there’s type of limited way in which nature has to evolve the complex circuit for speech.


The research appears in Science magazine. The I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

From Teeth to Beaks

December 15, 2014

The ancestors of birds had teeth, but started to lose them around 100 million years ago.




How the bird lost its teeth. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Bird beaks come in all shapes and sizes. The long, thin hummingbird’s beak retrieves nectar deep from within flowers; the thick lower bill of a flamingo filters food like a baleen whale; and the powerful, curved beak of a parrot cracks open seeds. Amid all this diversity, it’s hard to imagine that birds once had teeth rather than beaks. In fact, in the journal Science, Mark Spring at the University of California, Riverside and his colleagues report that the genes for bird teeth are still in their DNA, but were inactivated by a series of mutations as beaks evolved.

MARK SPRINGER (University of California, Riverside):

If teeth are lost, we would expect the tooth-related genes to acculuate mutations and then they become non-functional. Because if a gene is no longer needed, it’s no longer maintained by natural selection.


Springer says birds lost their front teeth first, starting around 100 million years ago, followed by the teeth at the back of their mouths. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.


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