for National Geographic News
When babies gurgle "goo-goo, ga-ga," it might seem they simply can't control their vocalizations.
But a specific part of infants' brains may be devoted to creating this seemingly random babbling, suggests a new study of songbirds called zebra finches.
These birds also "babble" when young, and the study shows that a specific part of their brains is devoted to this stage of learning. But as the birds age this region gives way to a different region linked to adult song.
"We tend to think of young animals making random movements and playing, and it doesn't seem to have a reason," said study leader Michale Fee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
"But the reason is, in order to learn, they need to try out different things."
The parts of the birds' brains that help them learn to sing seem very similar to those in mammals related to learning to move, Fee said.
What's more, male birds seem to learn songs such as mating calls by listening to their fathers or other older males.
"They're definitely imitating," Fee said. "This is what's driving a lot of excitement in this field, because it's like how people learn their parents' language."
Researchers hope that studying the birds will help explain how people learn to speak and may even give new insight into how we think creatively, Fee said.
Zebra finches are small songbirds that generally jump around beeping at their neighbors.
Put a female next to a grown male, and he'll suddenly stand still on his perch and belt out a string of squeaks and beeps to woo her—the same repetitive tune he learned from older males.
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