Researchers have uncovered key structural differences in the brains of parrots that may explain the birds’ unparalleled ability to imitate sounds and human speech.
Duke University’s Mukta Chakraborty said that the finding opens up a huge avenue of research in parrots, in trying to understand how parrots are processing the information necessary to copy novel sounds and what are the mechanisms that underlie imitation of human speech sounds.
By examining gene expression patterns, the new study found that parrot brains are structured differently than the brains of songbirds and hummingbirds, which also exhibit vocal learning.
In addition to having defined centers in the brain that control vocal learning called “cores,” parrots have what the scientists call “shells” or outer rings, which are also involved in vocal learning.
The shells are relatively bigger in species of parrots that are well known for their ability to imitate human speech, the group found. Until now, the budgerigar (common pet parakeet) was the only species of parrot whose brain had been probed for the mechanisms of vocal learning.
The study is published in PLOS ONE.