Scientists Discover That Drunk Birds Sing Like Drunks The songs of zebra finches, long used as a model for how humans learn to use speech, get a little sloppy after a few drinks, a new study finds. Future research will look at how it affects learning.
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Scientists Discover That Drunk Birds Sing Like Drunks

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Scientists Discover That Drunk Birds Sing Like Drunks

Scientists Discover That Drunk Birds Sing Like Drunks

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you drank too much at Christmas, listen up. A new story looked at how alcohol affects communication - bird communication. Christopher Olson and his colleagues at Oregon Health and Science University got a bunch of zebra finches drunk and singing in the name of science. I asked him what they were expecting to happen, and why give alcohol to birds in the first place?

CHRISTOPHER OLSON: Well, we wanted to study how alcohol affects the production of bird song because we use the zebra finch is a model to study human vocal learning in the first place. And that's the process that allows humans to learn how to communicate with language. And that's a fairly unique trait that we have. So we, as humans - we learn to speak by hearing other people talk, and birds have a very similar process. And we all know that alcohol affects human speech, so...

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: Now, how did you get the birds drunk?

OLSON: Well, we just showed up in the morning and mixed a little bit of juice with six percent alcohol and put in their water bottles and put in the cages. And, you know, at first, we were thinking that they wouldn't drink on their own because, you know, a lot of animals just will not touch the stuff. But they seem to tolerate it pretty well, and be somewhat willing to consume it.

RATH: And how tipsy - how intoxicated did the birds get? How do you (laughter) - how do you measure that?

OLSON: Well, we can take a small blood sample, and we have yet to invent the bird breathalyzer, but...

(LAUGHTER)

OLSON: ...Which would be easy. But we can take a small blood sample, and what we see is blood ethanol concentrations in the range of 0.05 to 0.08 percent. And so, you know, 0.08 is the legal limit to drive, just to give you a baseline. They're just underneath that.

RATH: And so, well, let's get to the effects of alcohol on the birdsong. So the first we're going to hear - this is the normal zebra finch song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZEBRA FINCH SONG)

RATH: And this is the drunk song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZEBRA FINCH SONG)

RATH: Now, Chris, I know that birds can hear a lot more detail in sound than we do, which is good because I can't really tell a difference between these two.

OLSON: Yeah. It's probably hard. You know, all of the syllables that you heard in the first song where there that, you know, if I had been drinking the amount those birds had, all of my speech would probably be there, too. So you can't really judge it on big structural differences in the song. But if you take smaller syllables out and slow them down, you start to hear the difference.

RATH: So let's bring this down to a level that humans can perceive. So first we'll have the slowed down normal zebra finch song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZEBRA FINCH SONG)

RATH: And then this is the slowed down drunken song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZEBRA FINCH SONG)

RATH: It sounds a little bit sloppier.

OLSON: A little sloppier. Well, the main effects that we see are that it's a little bit quieter. And then, also, the ones that had been consuming alcohol are a bit less organized in their sound production. A good analogy, perhaps, is, you know, in college, you probably had a roommate who called you up to pick him up from the bar. And you knew right away something was up because you could hear differences in their voice, you know.

RATH: And what about the song learning process? These birds learning songs pretty much the same way that humans acquire speech - does it interfere with that? Does alcohol interfere with that?

OLSON: Yeah, and actually that'll be an important next direction that we want to take this research. Obviously, there's a lot of interest in how alcohol affects developing brains and, for us, how alcohol affects speech production and vocalization. And the bird model actually presents us with a really unique opportunity to examine that.

RATH: Christopher Olson is a neuroscientist at Oregon Health and Science University. He and his colleagues have just published a study on the drunken music of zebra finches. Christopher Olson, very interesting stuff. Thank you.

OLSON: Sure. Thank you for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' ROBIN")

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing) Tweedle-lee-dee-dee-dee, tweedle-lee-dee-dee-dee, tweedle-lee-dee-dee-dee, tweedle-lee-dee-dee-dee, tweedle-lee-dee-dee-dee, tweedle-lee-dee-dee-dee, tweet, tweet (ph).

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