Starlings Able To Focus On Own Songs

Hopkins Study Finds Birds Can Tune Out Background Noise


On a spring morning, when every bird seems to be chirping at the same time, European starlings can focus on one song of their own species amid the chatter, Johns Hopkins University scientists have found.

The feat parallels the human ability to tune into one conversation at a crowded bar and eventually may offer insight into how babies and toddlers can filter out the patterns of language amid all the background noise.

Hopkins scientists made several tapes, combining songs from starlings, brown thrashers, nightingales and mockingbirds. Two bird songs were superimposed in each tape, but half of the recordings did not contain a starling song. The starlings in the study had been trained to peck at a certain key when they heard songs specific to their species.

Even when their own songs were almost indistinguishable, the starlings were able to hear their cue more than 80 percent of the time, the researchers reported in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. The birds were almost as successful when their own songs were mixed with a combination of many forest sounds, as when all birds are singing at once.

Pub Date: 4/22/97

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