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Why birds mimic well: Contradicts earlier claims

bird brain core and shell/Jonathan E. Lee, Duke University

Further to how cats get the rodents they will eat to lose their fear of them, we are now beginning to understand how parrots become excellent voice imitators. From Duke University,

An international team of scientists led by Duke University researchers has uncovered key structural differences in the brains of parrots that may explain the birds’ unparalleled ability to imitate sounds and human speech.

Parrots are one of the few animals considered ‘vocal learners,’ meaning they can imitate sounds. Researchers have been trying to figure out why some bird species are better imitators than others. Besides differences in the sizes of particular brain regions, however, no other potential explanations have surfaced.

By examining gene expression patterns, the new study found that parrot brains are structured differently than the brains of songbirds and hummingbirds, which also exhibit vocal learning. In addition to having defined centers in the brain that control vocal learning called ‘cores,’ parrots have what the scientists call ‘shells,’ or outer rings, which are also involved in vocal learning.

The shells are relatively bigger in species of parrots that are well known for their ability to imitate human speech, the group found.


Before now, some scientists had assumed that the regions surrounding the cores had nothing to do with vocal learning.

Sure. And, of course, we then go off track again:

The new results support the group’s hypothesis that in humans and other song-learning animals, the ability to imitate arose by brain pathway duplication. How such a copy-and-paste job could have happened is still unknown.

Why not forget humans for the present and concentrate on the birds? We could finally learn more if we did.

That is because a tuneless kid learning his national anthem under social compulsion is not the same sort of entity as a starling in Toronto learning to imitate the sound of squirrels (because residents put out peanuts for squirrels but not for the easily dislikeable starlings).

See also: See also: Matching Darwin’s “Tree of Life,” the “Tree of Intelligence” comes crashing down

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Human speech is just more sounds to dumb birds. tHey imitate machines or anything. Its just a minor function of memory I say. No big deal. The bigger stuff in the heads is just for memory function and not that some birds have bigger brains. In nature it helps them to imitate quick needed sounds. Its probably about the quickness of imitation that is important to them. The other birds simply never needed to be that quick. Quicker not smarter. Robert Byers

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