The nervously chirping of a woodpecker is like the singing of songbirds

Songbirds have been searched for for a long time. It turns out that speech and bird song have some similarities: both are learned at an early age, require complex muscle coordination and are controlled by specialized areas of the brain. And now it seems that the woodpecker, despite his lack of singing skills, has similar areas.

Both humans and songbirds have specialized brain regions that express the photoelectric protein parvalbumin. Patterns of gene expression in these regions have been linked to vocal learning, which occurs in songbirds, hummingbirds, parrots, and humans.

from Brown University (USA) has now investigated PV gene expression in several previously unexplored bird species, including flamingos, ducks, penguins and woodpeckers, All of them don’t show any vocal education.

Surprisingly, the team discovered that woodpeckers have specialized brain regions that also make this PV protein. In addition, it has been confirmed that these regions are located in the same numbers and in the same location as the forebrain nuclei that regulate song learning and production in songbirds. However, these areas are not active when the birds vocalize, but when they peck their beaks on a tree. Understanding these similarities can help us understand how current brain systems evolve and adapt to new but similar functions.

Speech vs language

Johan Polhes Professor of Cognitive Neurobiology (Utrecht University): “It’s an interesting study that was done with care. It’s good to be clear that there is a difference between speech and language. Phonemic learning – as children do – is really important for speaking, but speech is not the same as language.” Language occurs in our heads and can be expressed through speech, but also, for example, through sign language.We use language almost constantly when we think, and most of the time we do not speak.

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It is very interesting that regions with a similar pattern of gene expression are involved in woodpecker percussion as well as in vocalization and vocal learning in songbirds. It also relates to complex motor behavior in both cases. There is also an association with humans: we also have complex sounds that we learn, and similar patterns of gene expression in these brain regions. However, it has nothing to do with human language, it is of a completely different order. The question now is whether these regions are involved in complex motor behaviour, or in learning this behaviour.

Ornithologist Jente Ottenburghs (University of Wageningen): “Throughout evolution, the brain regions of both bird species have focused on different signals, but the basis appears to be the same. It shows well that evolution does not have to develop new structures, but often works with materials that already exist.

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