Drunk birds don’t sing as well, study finds

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Just as getting drunk can impact a person’s ability (and willingness) to sing, consuming too much alcohol can have a similar effect on some types of birds, researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) have discovered in a new study.

In an interview with NPR on Sunday, Christopher Olson explained how he and his colleagues used zebra finches as part of their research, since the birds have long been used as a model to study vocal learning and communication skills in humans. Since alcohol can have a major impact on the speech patterns of people, they wanted to see if the finches would also be affected.

“We just showed up in the morning and mixed a little bit of juice with 6 percent alcohol, and put it in their water bottles and put it in the cages,” he explained. “At first we were thinking that they wouldn’t drink on their own because, you know, a lot of animals just won’t touch the stuff. But they seem to tolerate it pretty well and be somewhat willing to consume it.”

The blood alcohol content of the birds were measured in the .05 percent to .08 percent range. While those levels would not be enough to make a person become fall-down drunk, it was more than enough to generate the intended effects, since birds metabolize alcohol differently.

An audio recording indicates that the finches’ song becomes quieter and slightly slurred, or as Olson put it, the birds become “a bit less organized in their sound production.” He added that his research team now wants to find out how being drunk changes the way finches learn new songs.

Researchers from OHSU were also involved in a recent research project in which a team of over 100 scientists sequenced and compared the genomes of 48 different bird species to assemble the most reliable tree of avian life ever created. The project, which took over four years to complete, was hailed as the largest-ever whole genome study of a single class of animals.

As part of that research, Dr. Claudio Mello, a professor of behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine and an expert on the science of songbirds’ learning their vocalizations, co-authored a paper that focused on the genes in songbird brains associated with leaning songs. He found that many of them were the same as the human genes responsible for speech and language.

In addition, he served as senior author on a paper with investigated genes unique to songbirds that arose as birds evolved to improve their vocal learning. In a statement, Mello explained that “we believe that finding these genes takes us one step closer to understanding the biological and genetic basis of vocal learning – which in humans is the basis for speech and language learning.”

“This may help us to better understand how speech and language work, and also identify some possible genetic causes of speech and language impairments, a novel and exciting area of research that sounded very esoteric not too long ago,” he added. “The studies in birds will help us understand where and how these genes work in the brain, and thus devise better approaches to combat speech problems in humans.”

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