These brain structures had gone unrecognised in studies published over the last 34 years, researchers said. By examining gene expression patterns, the new study found that parrot brains are structured differently than the brains of songbirds and hummingbirds, which also exhibit vocal learning.

In addition to having defined centres in the brain that control vocal learning called 'cores,' parrots have what the scientists call 'shells,' or outer rings, which are also involved in vocal learning.

The shells are relatively bigger in species of parrots that are well known for their ability to imitate human speech, the researchers found. "This finding opens up a huge avenue of research in parrots, in trying to understand how parrots are processing the information necessary to copy novel sounds and what are the mechanisms that underlie imitation of human speech sounds," said Mukta Chakraborty, a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Erich Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology at Duke University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

Parrots are one of the few animals considered 'vocal learners,' meaning they can imitate sounds. Researchers have been trying to figure out why some bird species are better imitators than others. Besides differences in the sizes of particular brain regions, however, no other potential explanations have surfaced. Until now, the budgerigar (common pet parakeet) was the only species of parrot whose brain had been probed for the mechanisms of vocal learning.

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