Bird Pairs Practice Mind-Control to Create Dovetailing Duets

Professor Melissa Coleman explores the neuroscience behind coordinated birdsong

Professor Mellissa Coleman
Professor of Neuroscience Melissa Coleman

Ever wonder how pairs of songbirds sing in sync? New research from Professor of Neuroscience Melissa J. Coleman and a team of scientists explores how the brains of plain-tailed wrens keep the duet-singing birds from missing a beat. They may be talking about birds, but their research has evoked analogies to Simon and Garfunkel.

“We examined the interactions between sensory cues and motor activity in the brains of female and male plain-tailed wrens that rapidly take turns to produce a duet that sounds as if a single bird is singing,” the authors write in their paper, “Neurophysiological coordination of duet singing,” recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

For these experiments, the team traveled to a field site on the slopes of the Andes in Ecuador. They made simultaneous neurophysiological recordings from the brains of pairs of singing wrens. They recorded from an area in the bird brain—called HVC—that integrates auditory feedback and is necessary for song production. In both female and male birds, the HVC area of the brain “lit up” (to be more specific, HVC neurons’ spiking activity increased) in the bird that was singing. For the bird that was listening and silent, activity in that area of the brain decreased or, as one press release about the research put it, the “duetting songbirds ‘mute’ the musical mind of their partner to stay in sync.”

The more scientific explanation goes like this: “We discovered that inhibition driven by hearing the partner alternated with singing-related activity. This combination creates the precise timing of the duets,” Coleman says. “Inhibition is interesting as it prevents the two birds from singing over each other and provides a mechanism for the rapid back and forth that is required for duets. These data show how sensory feedback links the brains of cooperating animals through the modulation of motor circuits.”

Coleman, who teaches at the W.M. Keck Science Department of Pitzer, Scripps, and Claremont McKenna Colleges, co-authored the paper with Nancy F. Day of Whitman College, Pamela Rivera-Parra of Escuela Politécnica National in Quito, Ecuador, and Eric S. Fortune of the New Jersey Institute of Technology. University of Washington Professor Eliot A. Brenowitz penned a PNAS commentary “Taking turns: The neural control of birdsong duets” in response to their research.

Since its release by PNAS on May 31, 2021, their research has sparked the imaginations and captured the attention of media around the globe from the UK’s Independent’s “Duetting wrens mute music-making parts of their partner’s brains to stay in sync, says study,” to Cosmos Magazine’s “Duetting wrens sing with telepathic link.” The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s segment Quirks & Quarks opened their story “Wrens synchronize their brains in order to sing spectacular duets” with a clip of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper singing “Shallow” from A Star is Born. CNN’s article “Songbirds act as one when they sing together, new study suggests” says the research could help “illuminate the mechanics of coordination in humans” and, ultimately, “build better robots.”

This isn’t the first time Coleman’s wren research has received national and international attention. The New York Times and other media outlets covered a previous paper Neural Mechanisms for the Coordination of Duet Singing in Wrens, published in 2011.

Melissa J. Coleman is a professor of neuroscience who joined the Keck Science Department in 2006. She studies how the nervous system produces defined behaviors, making her an expert on the neural basis of behavior in general and birdsong in particular. Her paper on the mating song preference of zebra finches was shortlisted for the Journal of Experimental Biology’s 2019 Outstanding Paper Prize.

In 2019, Coleman was named the director of the Grass Fellows Laboratory, which provides early-career scientists the opportunity to conduct independent neuroscience summer research projects at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. Her Keck courses include Foundations in Neuroscience, Neuroscience: Cell and Molecular, and Behavioral Neurobiology. She earned her BS at Samford University, her PhD at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and did her postdoc work at Brandeis University, Barrow Neurological Institute, and Duke University.