Drumming or singing? It’s all the same to a woodpecker’s brain

Songbirds use learned vocalisations to communicate for a variety of reasons including establishing territory, dominance and attracting a mate. In a kind of morse-code-for-birds, woodpeckers have been found to communicate in a similar manner – only using patterns of drumming.

Scientists interested in the development of human language in individuals often study the development of learned vocalisations in young songbirds as both processes have some important commonalities. Both birds and humans learn their respective languages when they are young and must develop the complex muscle movements required to control sound production.

Woodpecker rapidly drumming
Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) rapidly drumming. Credit: Mady70/Getty Images

Songbirds and humans also share a neurological link. A gene called parvalbumin (PV) is found in the specialized regions in songbird and human brains associated with learning their respective ‘languages’. PV has so far not been found in any birds that don’t learn their vocalisations.

Now, a US research collaboration has discovered PV in the brains of woodpeckers which matches characteristics in the regions of songbird brains associated with song learning and production.

Although woodpeckers are capable of vocalisations, the researchers found that the PV regions were activated by the birds’ rapid drumming activities rather than their vocalisations.

Read more: Bird brains: smaller is better for preventing woodpecker concussions

Woodpecker drumming shares several characteristics with the singing of songbirds such as the development of the complex motor skills required and the use of drumming in defending their territories.

A woodpecker drums to establish its territory

As Matthew Fuxjager at Brown University in the US explains, “Woodpeckers have a set of specialized brain areas that control their ability to drum, or rapidly hammer their bill on trees (and gutters!) during fights with other birds. Furthermore, these brain areas look remarkably similar to the parts of the brain in songbirds that help these animals learn to sing.”

It’s not quite enough evidence yet to prove that woodpeckers learn their drumming, but certainly suggests it’s a strong possibility.

Understanding how similar brain activity and function can produce different systems of communication will help us understand more about the evolution of vocal and non-vocal forms of expression in humans and animals.

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