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How Songbirds Learn a New Song


A Zebra finch.

Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the University of Zurich have shown songbirds' learning strategy resembles the methods used by computer scientists for document comparison.

Credit: Colourbox

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) and the University of Zurich in Switzerland have studied how Zebra finches carry out a minimalist, step-by-step process to learn new songs by taking syllables they already know and adapting them to the syllables they must learn.

Through trial and error, the birds assemble the newly learned syllables into the proper order.

"Interestingly, the birds' strategy closely resembles the best methods currently used in computer linguistics to compare documents," says ETH Zurich professor Richard Hahnloser. He notes such algorithms compare written documents by gauging their words in context irrespective of their exact order.

By comparing billions of texts, Hahnloser says these algorithms can calculate the similarity of two words in terms of a number.

"Today's computer scientists therefore use the same strategy that songbirds evolved--the birds have probably been using it for millions of years," he says.

From ETH Zurich
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