When children are learning to talk, they quickly correct small errors. That way, they can perfect their imitations of adults’ speech. To figure out why the developing mind so efficiently tackles small problems, researchers turned to an unlikely test subject: songbirds. Scientists at Emory and the University of California, San Francisco, fitted Bengalese finches with tiny headphones (see picture) so they could alter the sounds the birds hear when they sing, tricking them into thinking they are singing the wrong notes.
Like children, birds listen to their elders and learn to communicate by imitating what they hear. In the study, the birds corrected small errors more quickly and effectively than large ones, which are more likely to be from outside sources and should be ignored. The researchers also showed that young birds, compared with adults, tend to be more flexible in what they process and correct. –AH