Scientists Discover That Drunk Birds Sing Like Drunks

Scientists Discover That Drunk Birds Sing Like Drunks

1:18pm Dec 29, 2014
Recent research has shown that zebra finches sing differently when drunk, but not whether they know enough of the lyrics to get through "I Will Survive" or "Don't Stop Believin'."
Recent research has shown that zebra finches sing differently when drunk, but not whether they know enough of the lyrics to get through "I Will Survive" or "Don't Stop Believin'."
Liza Gross / Courtesy Public Library of Science

If you've ever listened to karaoke at a bar, you know that drinking can affect how well someone can sing. Christopher Olson and his colleagues at Oregon Health and Science University recently set out to find if the same was true for birds, specifically zebra finches.

"We just showed up in the morning and mixed a little bit of juice with 6 percent alcohol, and put it in their water bottles and put it in the cages," Olson told All Things Considered's Arun Rath. "At first we were thinking that they wouldn't drink on their own because, you know, a lot of animals just won't touch the stuff. But they seem to tolerate it pretty well and be somewhat willing to consume it."

The finches long have been used as a model to study human vocal learning, or how people learn to communicate using language, Olson said. Obviously, alcohol affects human speech, so Olson and his team checked for similar problems with the birds.

The blood alcohol levels achieved — .05 to .08 percent — would be laughed off by many college students, but because birds metabolize alcohol differently it was plenty to produce the effects the scientists were looking for.

Listen to the audio, and you'll hear that the finches' song gets a bit quieter and just a little slurred, or as Olson puts it, "a bit less organized in their sound production" — like a roommate calling from a bar to get a ride home.

In the future, Olson wants to find out whether alcohol affects not just how birds sing but how they learn new songs — like a roommate partying so late he's still drunk in class the next morning.

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Transcript

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). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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