Sweet Dreams

What do birds dream about while they sleep? A recent study suggests that zebra finches, at least, dream of singing

02-01-2001 // Mark Cheater

What do birds dream about while they sleep? A recent study suggests that zebra finches, at least, dream of singing.

The colorful songbirds, native to Australian grasslands, breed easily in captivity, making them popular both as pets and as lab subjects. Males sing to attract mates, and learn their songs by imitating other zebra finches.

Daniel Margoliash and Amish Dave at the University of Chicago measured the brain-cell firing patterns of several captive finches while they were awake and singing, and found that the birds spontaneously generated similar patterns (often hundreds of times a night) while they were asleep. "The zebra finch appears to store the neuronal firing pattern of song production during the day and reads it out at night, rehearsing the song and, perhaps, improvising variations. The match is remarkably good," says Margoliash.

Beyond providing a possible glimpse of the bird's dreamland, the study may help us to understand the value of sleep in human learning. Says Margoliash, "The beautiful songs of birds could have much to teach us about how we learn."

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