All the News from the Salem Inn and In Salem

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Unlikely Welcoming Committee

As you enter the front hall of the Salem Inn, you might hear soft beeping and cheeping of seven zebra finches coming from the drawing room, or parlor, to your left. When this federalist-style home was built in 1834, this room was the entertainment center and would have showcased the occupants' finest furnishings.  Ladies would have retired here after they had dined, while the men would have stayed behind in the dining room and socialized over stinky cigars and brandy. 

Ladies gathering and chirping like finches.

The room plays much the same function now as it is a place to rest, enjoy the fire and some sherry, and visit.  The beeping and cheeping are the welcoming song of the zebra finches (native to Australia) who have for so many years delighted Salem Inn guests.  In fact, the birds have been there longer than anyone can quite remember.  Dick and Diane, the owners, hazard a guess of 12 years.  They started with about three or four finches in one cage, and the years in between have seen up to four cages full of finches, all descendants of the original birds. There are always one or two nests with eggs at any given time.  When I peeked in the other day, someone had gotten a bit confused and laid her eggs in the food dish.  Occasionally when Jenn, the general manager, cleans the cages, a little escape artist gets away and has to be caught with a designated finch-catching net.

A male zebra finch has bright orange cheeks

When the finches start outnumbering the hotel staff and guests, it's time to give some away.  They have gone home with guests, housekeepers, and bird-lovers from Craig's List.  So far, about 25 baby finches have found new homes.  Since finches can live up to 15 years, some of these birds may be hanging out with their great-great-great (up to about 13 greats) grandparents.

The plainer female, who will compensate for a less-than-superior mate 
by having bigger, stronger eggs with more nutrition inside

And here's an interesting bit of information: researchers conducted a study observing the effect of the zebra finch's song on dopamine reward circuits in its brain. The male bird has two different songs, one conducted in privacy potentially for practice and the other used to attract females.  (I don't think they get any privacy at the Inn...) Surprisingly they found that the bird produced a response in the dopamine reward circuits when singing for a female but not in privacy.

Why would it be more enjoyable to serenade a partner than just to sing to yourself? Evolution can likely be credited for the positive chemical reaction that occurs in the male finch; if he enjoys singing to females, he is likely to do it more often and therefore attract more mates. It is no stretch to imagine that humans should have a similar response to activities that woo a potential mate. If you can’t stop making yourself look nice, putting on nice clothes or showing off your strength, you may well be stimulating the same brain circuitry that can drive dangerous addictions.  Luckily, these evolution-favored behaviors are much safer than drugs.  And given the proliferation of the finches at the Inn, lack of privacy hasn't hurt their song much.

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