Birdsong is the classic example of how genes (hereditary information) and environment both have a crucial role to play in the behavioral development of animals. Since the pioneering work of W. H. Thorpe on chaffinches (a common European bird), many species have been studied, and it has become clear both that learning plays an important role for all species and also that there are constraints on what they are able to learn.
Thorpe was able to show that learning from others was involved in chaffinch birds through a series of experiments on hand-reared chicks (young birds). As in most other species, only the males sing. Thorpe found that, if he raised young males in total isolation from all others, the song they produced was quite different from that of a normal adult. It was about the right length and in the correct frequency range; it was also split up into a series of notes as it should be. But these notes lacked the detailed structure found in wild birds, nor was the song split up into distinct phrases as it usually is. This suggested that song development requires some social influence. Later experiments in which researchers played recordings of songs to young birds showed just how precise this influence was: many of them would learn the exact pattern of the recording they had heard. A remarkable feature here was that birds were able to copy precisely songs that they only heard in the first few weeks of life, yet they did not sing themselves until about eight months old. They are thus able to store a memory of the sound within their brain and then match their own output to their recollection of it when they mature.
Young chaffinches normally learn only chaffinch song, though Thorpe found they could be trained to sing the song of a tree pipit (another type of bird), which is very similar to that of their own species.In general, however, the constraints on learning which birds have ensure that they only learn songs appropriate to the species to which they themselves belong.These constraints may be in their brain circuitry, the young bird hatching with a rough idea of the sounds that it should copy.The crude song of a bird reared in isolation gives some clues as to what this rough idea may be: the length, the frequency range and the breaking up into notes are all aspects of chaffinch song shared between normal birds and those reared in isolation. In other cases the constraints are more social, young birds only being prepared to learn from individuals with whom they have social interactions. Thus, in a number of species, it has been found that they will not copy from recordings, but will do so from a live tutor. In some cases this may occur when they are young birds, but in others the main learning period is when they set up their territories and interact with neighbors for the first time, enabling them to match their neighbor songs and so counter sing with them. Whatever the nature of the learning rules in a particular species, there is no doubt that they are effective: it is very unusual to hear a wild bird singing a song which is not typical of its own species despite the many different songs which often occur in a small patch of woodland.
However, not all birds show the same learning pattern as do chaffinches. There are some species which produce normal sounds even if deaf, so that they cannot hear their own efforts, much less copy those of others. The cooing of doves and the crowing of cocks are examples here. In other cases, such as parrots and hill mynahs, birds can be trained to copy a huge variety of sounds, though those they learn in the wild are usually more restricted. The amazing capability of mynahs has apparently arisen simply because birds in an area learn a small number of their calls from each other, males from males and females from females, and these calls are highly varied in structure. The ability to master them has led the birds, incidentally, to be capable of saying hello and mimicking a wide variety of other sounds.