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Music to our ears and song in birds: a common sense approach

Posted on January 1, 2013 by James Kohl.

Birds Found to Have Emotional Reactions to Song NY Times Science 1/1/13


Female white-throated sparrows were found to respond to the songs of male sparrows in the same way as humans listening to pleasant music.


1) “Primed with estrogen to simulate their state during breeding, female white-throated sparrows responded to the songs of male sparrows in the same way as humans listening to pleasant music…”

2) “… male birds treated with testosterone showed a response in the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, when they heard other males singing.”

My comments: The clearest misrepresentation in this news article is that a hormone-organized and hormone- activated sex difference in the response can somehow be attributed to the songs. In “Birdsong: Is it music to their ears?” the sex difference in the response “…depends on the sex and endocrine state of the listener, so does the Egr-1 response.”

The Egr-1 response is the indicator of gene activation due to pheromones in rats. In rats and in all other vertebrates, the response to pheromones is genetically predisposed and develops due to classical conditioning of the same hormone-organized and hormone-activated behaviors exhibited by rats and humans exposed to pheromones of the opposite sex. There is overwhelming evidence that the epigenetic effects on hormone organization and activation in this species of bird, and in other avian species are due to the same pheromone-driven molecular mechanisms.

The senior author of this paper has detailed the hormone-organized and hormone-activated response in works with others: 1) Rapid Neuroendocrine Responses to Auditory Courtship Signals reviewed by the senior author of Pheromones in birds: myth or reality? and in 2) Activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis differs between behavioral phenotypes in female white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).

Here, the NY Times indicates the response is due to song. However, there is no direct effect of song on sex differences that involve Egr-1, which is the indicator of gene activation due to pheromones in other vertebrates. This “genomic action potential” (i.e., the IEG response) “…indicates that a neuron has begun to respond to a stimulus with new protein synthesis related to synaptic remodeling.” The synaptic remodeling, however, is due to pheromones that control nutrient chemical-dependent reproduction in all other vertebrates.

The ability of science writers to misrepresent what is known about cause and effect by biologists and equate music to our ears and song in birds, visual input in some species, tactile input in others, and pheromones in insects defies common sense.

Olfaction is the common sense that facilitates hormone-organized and hormone-activated sex differences in behavior which allow pheromones to control reproduction. When birds respond to songs or people respond to music, the sex differences are due to the epigenetic effects of pheromones on classically conditioned behaviors that are associated with other sensory input, not caused by the other sensory input. So, I’ll say this again:  “Olfaction and odor receptors provide a clear evolutionary trail that can be followed from unicellular organisms to insects to humans.” What that means, however, is that the science writers will need to learn about biologically based cause and effect before attempting to report on it in birds or any other species.





James Kohl
Retired medical laboratory scientist

James Kohl

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