Universiteit Leiden

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Biologist Carel ten Cate will now really retire. Right?

Pigeons, zebra finches and parakeets. Carel ten Cate studied bird sounds. But not just that. Together with linguists from Leiden, he investigated parallels between birdsong and language. On 9 June, his farewell symposium was held to mark the end of his broad career. Well, the end? Carel ten Cate has not finished yet.

Carel ten Cate

Bird song was a central part of your research. Where did it all start?

‘In 1992, I went from Groningen to Leiden. The behavioural biology here was only known then for its earlier research to sticklebacks. I brought birds, and soon concentrated on the meaning and development of bird sounds. I found it fascinating, as there are some species of birds that know a fixed arrangement of sounds from birth, like pigeons. Whereas songbirds instead learn their songs.’

What enables these songbirds to learn?

‘That was one of those things we wanted to know too. Social interactions appeared to be crucial, and we showed this in zebra finches. The research in bird sounds slowly evolved into investigating similarities between bird song and language. There are several parallels between both, such as the necessary ability for vocal learning. For that, we worked together with linguists from Leiden.’

In which way did the linguists contribute?

‘Together, we looked at the ability to learn language rules. If you don’t put words in the right order, sentences become impossible to understand. In birds, song is more simply structured, but we wanted to know if zebra finches and parakeets also are able to learn abstract language rules. We do this by playing example sounds, which are all built up according to a certain rule. In baby research, it is done similarly. Parakeets can easily deduce the underlying rule, but zebra finches were struggling. They pay attention to tunes and sounds, rather than to rules. This research also had a consequence for the work of linguists: Babies proved to don’t always focus on the rules, but pay more attention to patterns in sound as well.’

Zebra finch in an experiment. Credit Herman Berkhoudt

Does your retirement mean that the last chapter for your research is written?

‘Michelle Spierings is one of the people continuing my research. She did her PhD with me and now has her own Veni-project. Michelle continues something we also thought make humans unique: The ability to make and appreciate music. For example, she wants to know if animals have a sense of rhythm and if that is related to the vocal learning ability.’

What makes research enjoyable for you?

‘By shifting your research focus and collaborating often, my work was lively and varying. And improbable findings make it fun. That was the case with the Australian musk duck, which imitated sounds like a door slamming shut and a cursing caregiver.’

What did you do besides research?

‘If you are allowed to be a professor, additional tasks come with that responsibility, in my opinion. I have been director of education as well as scientific director for four years. Besides that, I have been involved in several committees, such as the ethical committee of the Science Faculty, and the IBL-monitoring committee for PhD candidates.’

Do you have advise for people at the start of their career?

‘Try to keep a broad perspective. Don’t think in boxes and are open to things you initially have no affinity with, or that don’t seem relevant. In hindsight, it might become something important or interesting, and you can get a lot out of that.’

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