Tweet sensations

Tim Birkhead finds a valuable lesson in the story of the bullfinch trainers

April 21, 2011

It is the first day of spring and I wake up early. In the first glimmers of daylight I can hear the birds singing - the dawn chorus. This surge of spring song is triggered by a pulse of hormones, which in turn is stimulated by the increase in day length. Each male is singing to announce its ownership of a territory and to advertise itself to potential mates. Securing a place to breed and a partner are important reasons for singing. Without song, there's no success.

Later in the day as I walk to the Students' Union shop to get my lunch, the same hormones are having a similar effect on the undergraduates. They're not singing anything I recognise as song, but some of them are definitely defending little territories on the lawns in the sun. As though encouraging them, the birds in the surrounding bushes and trees continue to sing. Nobody seems to need much encouragement, for love is in the air and on the grass.

Even more arresting than the undergraduates is a pair of bullfinches. One of our most gorgeous birds (or at least the male is), this is a species like many others whose British populations have been decimated in the past 50 years. Deemed a pest by orchard owners - it eats fruit buds - tens of thousands were killed (legally) during the 1960s. I'm very encouraged to see a pair on campus.

Birds acquire their song in one of two ways: it is either learned, or it is innate, a genetic endowment from its parents. The great tit is one of a small number of birds whose song - which is best rendered as a repetitive "teacher teacher" - is innate. Most other birds learn their song from a tutor - usually their father.

In the 1800s, German forestry workers exploited this tendency of young birds to learn by becoming surrogate fathers, hand-rearing young bullfinches and teaching them to whistle German folk tunes. The bullfinch's natural song is rather limited and reminiscent of a squeaky wheelbarrow. But with a few months' training from the foresters, the bullfinches were able to whistle a wonderfully sophisticated tune in beautiful pure tones. A popular tune was Chopin's Thou Art So Like a Flower - hardly a trivial melody. Most birds mastered a single song, but some could perform three different tunes to perfection.

Whistling bullfinches became popular pets and, as news of their abilities spread, they were exported across the world - the Tsar of Russia had one, as did Queen Victoria. For the foresters this was a lucrative business as a whistling bullfinch was the iPhone of the day: a source of pride and pleasure. A bird that could whistle three tunes was worth a small fortune.

What those German foresters did was not so different from what the best lecturers try to do with undergraduates - to tap in to a predisposition to learn. The secret of the foresters' success was that the birds' motivation to learn was based on an empathetic relationship of mutual trust between tutor and pupil.

The very last of the bullfinch trainers died in the 1970s and you would be hard pressed to find a whistling bullfinch these days. But there's a valuable lesson here. For birds such as the great tit with an innate song, there's really no way their singing can be improved by training: it is fixed, but presumably adequate for the bird's simple life. For most other species, the ability to learn has a huge impact on each individual's overall fitness: learning and perfecting a sophisticated song helps to maximise its reproductive success.

However, as the bullfinch story shows, individuals can be trained to both perfection and innovation. The foresters didn't simply get bullfinches to perfect their natural song, they enabled them to master songs far beyond what birdwatchers or ornithologists ever imagined. Those who witnessed whistling bullfinches watched and listened in disbelief. The foresters gained access into an untapped reservoir of cognitive ability to produce extraordinary results, exactly as we should, can and sometimes do with undergraduates.

Intrigued by the sense of well-being I experienced while listening to the dawn chorus, I volunteered to be a pilot subject in a functional MRI study and was amazed by how much my brain lit up while listening to birdsong. A rush of blood to certain regions, but almost certainly a rush of dopamine too. This is exactly the sensation one has when undergraduates have been inspired by our teaching - and one hopes, exactly the sensation undergraduates experience when they realise they have understood something we have tried to teach them. Tutors and pupils mutually reinforced.

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