Using the responses of territory owners to playback to infer the territorial function of acoustic signals is common practice. However, difficulties with interpreting the results of such experiments have obscured our understanding of territorial signaling. For instance, a stronger response to playback is often interpreted as more aggressive, but there is no consensus as to whether this should be in response to the least or most threatening simulated intruder. Rather than following a gradual increase or decrease, the relationship between signal intensity and response strength may instead describe a peaked curve. We manipulated banded wren (Thryophilus pleurostictus) songs to simulate low, median and high performance singers and used these songs as stimuli in playback experiments. Banded wrens were less likely to approach the high performance stimulus compared to the low and median performance stimuli. However, the birds that did approach the high performance stimulus sang more than those that approached the low performance stimulus. In addition, birds were more likely to match the songs when exposed to the median and high performance stimuli compared to the low performance stimuli and song matching predicted approach behavior. These results are in accordance with theoretical models of aggressive encounters in which low performance opponents are challenged without further assessment. Median and high performance opponents however, may require further assessment and the latter may be perceived as too intimidating for approach.
playback; song; territory defense; sexual selection; assessment
Interpreting receiver responses to on-territory playback of aggressive signals is problematic. One solution is to combine such receiver-perspective experiments with a sender-perspective experiment that allows subjects to demonstrate how their choice of singing strategies is associated with their approach behavior. Here we report the results of a sender-perspective study on the banded wren (Thryothorus pleurostictus), and combine information on context and results of previous receiver-perspective experiments to clarify function. Territorial males were presented with a 5-min playback consisting of song types present in their repertoire. We assessed the degree to which the subjects’ song matching rate, overlapping rate, and song-type versatility were correlated with their approach latency, closeness of approach, latency to first retreat, and time spent close to the speaker. Male age, breeding stage, and features of the playback stimuli were also considered. Song matching was associated with rapid and close approach, consistent with the receiver-perspective interpretation of type matching as a conventional signal of aggressive motivation. Overlapping was associated with earlier retreat, and together with the aversive receiver response to our previous overlapping playback experiment suggests that overlapping is a defensive withdrawal signal. High versatility was associated with slower first retreat from the speaker and high levels of reciprocal matching between subject and playback. Males with fledglings sang with particularly low versatility and approached the speaker aggressively, whereas males with nestlings overlapped more and retreated quickly. Finally, older males matched more but overlapped less.
Aggressive motivation; playback design; path analysis; signal function; singing versatility; song-type repertoires
Conventional signals impose costs on senders through receiver retaliation rather than through investment in signal production. While several visual conventional signals have been described (mainly 'badges of status'), acoustic examples are rare; however, several aspects of repertoire use in songbirds are potential candidates. We performed interactive playback experiments to determine whether song-type matches (responding to a song with the same song type), repertoire matches (responding to a song with a different song type, but one in the repertoires of both singers) and unshared song types serve as conventional signals during male-male territorial interactions in banded wrens, Thryothorus pleurostictus. Our results demonstrate that these three signals incite varying levels of receiver aggression: song-type matches induce faster approach than do repertoire matches, and repertoire matches induce faster approach than do unshared song types. Production costs do not differ, while the receiver response does. Because territorial banded wrens approach opponents who signal aggressively, such opponents risk attack. This system will punish and prevent cheaters, as weak males signalling aggression will be subject to escalation by stronger or more-motivated opponents.
We tested the signal value of song overlapping in banded wrens (Thryothorus pleurostictus), using interactive playback to either overlap or alternate with their songs. Males shortened song duration and decreased variability in song length when their songs were overlapped by playback, suggesting that they were attempting to avoid being overlapped and perhaps being less aggressive. A novel finding was an effect of long-term prior experience: song lengths remained relatively short in alternating trials that followed two or more days after overlapping trials. Approach responses to the two treatments did not differ overall, but there was a parallel effect of prior experience: males tended to stay further from the speaker during alternating treatments if they had previously been overlapped by playback. Some females paired to the male subjects sang in response to playback and were also influenced by prior experience, singing more during alternating trials that had not been preceded by an overlapping trial. Male overlappers may signal dominance over a rival to other male or female receivers in a communication network, but it is currently unclear whether overlapping indicates motivation to escalate an aggressive interaction, or whether this singing strategy is related to male quality. Banded wrens are long-lived and maintain year-round territories, so modifying responses to rivals based on prior experience is likely to be important for success.
song overlap; interactive signals; communication networks; male quality; female song
In a variety of songbirds the production of trilled song elements is constrained by a performance tradeoff between how fast a bird can repeat trill units (trill rate) and the range of frequencies each unit can span (frequency bandwidth). High-performance trills serve as an assessment signal for females, but little is known about the signal value of vocal performance for male receivers. We investigated the relationship between trill rate and frequency bandwidth in banded wren (Thryothorus pleurostictus) songs. Trilled song elements showed the same performance tradeoff found in other passerines and individuals differed in performance of some trill types. We tested the hypothesis that males of this species assess each other based on trill performance with a two-speaker experiment, in which territory owners were presented with alternating renditions of the same song type manipulated to differ in trill rate. Subjects were significantly more likely to approach the faster trill stimulus first. However, subjects that received trill types closer to the performance limit spent less time close to the fast speaker. Our results show that male banded wrens discriminate and respond differently to songs based on their vocal performance. Thus, performance of physically challenging songs may be important in intra- as well as inter-sexual assessment.
bird song; sexual selection; trill rate; Thryothorus pleurostictus; performance limit; acoustic playback
In a variety of songbirds the production of trilled song elements is
constrained by a performance tradeoff between how fast a bird can repeat trill
units (trill rate) and the range of frequencies each unit can span (frequency
bandwidth). High-performance trills serve as an assessment signal for females,
but little is known about the signal value of vocal performance for male
receivers. We investigated the relationship between trill rate and frequency
bandwidth in banded wren (Thryothorus pleurostictus) songs.
Trilled song elements showed the same performance tradeoff found in other
passerines and individuals differed in performance of some trill types. We
tested the hypothesis that males of this species assess each other based on
trill performance with a two-speaker experiment, in which territory owners were
presented with alternating renditions of the same song type manipulated to
differ in trill rate. Subjects were significantly more likely to approach the
faster trill stimulus first. However, subjects that received trill types closer
to the performance limit spent less time close to the fast speaker. Our results
show that male banded wrens discriminate and respond differently to songs based
on their vocal performance. Thus, performance of physically challenging songs
may thus be important in intra- as well as intersexual assessment.
bird song; sexual selection; trill rate; Thryothorus pleurostictus; performance limit; acoustic playback
Older males tend to have a competitive advantage over younger males in sexual selection. Therefore, it is expected that signals used in sexual selection change with age. Although song repertoire size in songbirds is often mentioned as an age-related trait, many species, including the banded wren (Thryothorus pleurostictus), do not increase their repertoires after the first year. Here, we show that banded wrens reproduce the trill notes in their songs with less variability between them (i.e. more consistently) when they grow older. In a playback experiment, we also show that banded wrens discriminate between younger and older birds based on structural aspects of their song. In a second experiment, banded wrens also respond differentially to natural songs versus songs with artificially enhanced consistency. We argue that consistency in trill note reproduction may be achieved through practice. Sexual selection in the form of male–male competition may therefore operate on a phenotypic trait, the expression of which is enhanced by practice.
sexual selection; competition; birdsong; age
Risk assessment occurs over different temporal and spatial scales and is selected for when individuals show an adaptive response to a threat. Here, we test if birds respond to the threat of brood parasitism using the acoustical cues of brood parasites in the absence of visual stimuli. We broadcast the playback of song of three brood parasites (Chalcites cuckoo species) and a sympatric non-parasite (striated thornbill, Acanthiza lineata) in the territories of superb fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus) during the peak breeding period and opportunistic breeding period. The three cuckoo species differ in brood parasite prevalence and the probability of detection by the host, which we used to rank the risk of parasitism (high risk, moderate risk, low risk).
Host birds showed the strongest response to the threat of cuckoo parasitism in accordance with the risk of parasitism. Resident wrens had many alarm calls and close and rapid approach to the playback speaker that was broadcasting song of the high risk brood parasite (Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo, C. basalis) across the year (peak and opportunistic breeding period), some response to the moderate risk brood parasite (shining bronze-cuckoo, C. lucidus) during the peak breeding period, and the weakest response to the low risk brood parasite (little bronze-cuckoo, C. minutillus). Playback of the familiar control stimulus in wren territories evoked the least response.
Host response to the threat of cuckoo parasitism was assessed using vocal cues of the cuckoo and was predicted by the risk of future parasitism.
Cuckoo recognition; Cuckoo threat; Risk perception; Experience; Song discrimination; Deterrent behaviour
Song-type matching is a singing strategy found in some oscine songbirds with repertoires of song types and at least partial sharing of song types between males. Males reply to the song of a rival male by subsequently singing the same song type. For type matching to serve as an effective long-distance threat signal, it must be backed up by some probability of aggressive approach and impose some type of cost on senders that minimizes the temptation to bluff. Western subspecies of the song sparrow exhibit moderate levels of song-type sharing between adjacent males and sometimes type match in response to playback of song types they possess in their repertoires. Interactive playback experiments were used in order to examine the subsequent behaviour of type-matching birds and to quantify the responses of focal birds to type-matching versus non-matching stimuli. Birds that chose to type match the playback of a shared song type subsequently approached the speaker much more aggressively than birds that did not type match. Moreover, birds approached a type-matching stimulus much more aggressively than a non-matching stimulus. These results and consideration of alternatives suggest that type matching in song sparrows is a conventional signal in which honesty is maintained by a receiver retaliation cost against bluffers.
Male songbirds often establish territories and attract mates by singing, and some song features can reflect the singer’s condition or quality. The quality of the song environment can change, so male songbirds should benefit from assessing the competitiveness of the song environment and appropriately adjusting their own singing behavior and the neural substrates by which song is controlled. In a wide range of taxa social modulation of behavior is partly mediated by the arginine vasopressin or vasotocin (AVP/AVT) systems. To examine the modulation of singing behavior in response to the quality of the song environment we compared the song output of laboratory-housed male Lincoln’s sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii) exposed to one week of chronic playback of songs categorized as either high or low quality, based on song length, complexity and trill performance. To explore the neural basis of any facultative shifts in behavior, we also quantified the subjects’ AVT immunoreactivity (AVT-IR) in three forebrain regions that regulate socio-sexual behavior: the medial bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTm), the lateral septum (LS) and the preoptic area. We found that high quality songs increased singing effort and reduced AVT-IR in the BSTm and LS, relative to low quality songs. The effect of the quality of the song environment on both singing effort and forebrain AVT-IR raises the hypothesis that AVT within these brain regions plays a role in the modulation of behavior in response to competition that individual males may assess from the prevailing song environment.
arginine vasotocin (AVT); bird song; competition; sexual selection; social behavior network
Song-type switching rate and song matching have been shown to function as territorial signals in male solo song but, to our knowledge, seem not to have been previously studied in a duetting species. We studied the plain wren (Thryothorus modestus zeledoni), to test whether duets signalled threat through song-switching rates, or through phrase type or duet type matching. Increases in the rate of song switching appear to function as an anti-habituation device rather than as a specific signal of threat. Fitting with previous results that same-sex individuals share phrase types, but pairs do not share duet types, both males and females used duets to phrase type match to playback. Pairs, however, did not duet type match in response to playback, and this suggests that within the cooperative territory defence of the duet, each sex is targeting its aggression at same-sex competitors.
Asymmetries in competitive ability can determine the outcome of social interactions in animals and are often expressed through differences in sexual traits. Competitive ability (resource holding potential, RHP), trait expression and ultimately reproductive success may vary with an individual's age or experience. In some species, reproductively mature males delay acquisition of some adult traits and thereby signal their young age. Theory on animal contests predicts that individuals assess the RHP of an opponent relative to their own, such that escalation is more common between evenly matched opponents. Here, we test predictions from this hypothesis that males respond to a territorial intruder based on their RHP relative to the intruder's RHP. We simulated white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) intruding into the territory of a recruit or return. Playback of a song repertoire simulating a young male (recruit) elicited a weaker response from established territory holders (return), but a stronger response from recruits. Playback of a single song type simulating an older male elicited the opposite responses. This indicates that males distinguished between simulated young and old intruders based on song, and responded differently depending on their own experience. Our study highlights the possibility that receiver as well as sender traits should be considered when interpreting animal interactions.
mutual assessment; birdsong; delayed maturation; sexual traits; Zonotrichia leucophrys
In many birds, individuals ‘answer’ the songs of their pair-mates to produce vocal ‘duets’. One hypothesized function of song answering is that it prevents extra-pair birds from intruding into the duetting pair's territory to obtain copulations or usurp one of the pair-mates. In this capacity, answering may signal that the pair-mates are close together, and so are prepared to defend against such an intrusion. Another functional hypothesis states that answering helps pair-mates maintain contact, and so predicts that a bird is more likely to approach its mate after a duet than after a solo song. I used radio-telemetry to monitor the distance between mated black-bellied wrens (Pheugopedius fasciatoventris). I found that birds of both sexes were more likely to answer their mate's song when the mate was close, and that maximum duet length was negatively related to the distance between pair-mates. Furthermore, song answering positively affected the likelihood of one pair-mate approaching the other after a song. In a significant majority of the approaches after duet songs, the answering bird approached the initiator. I conclude that in the black-bellied wren, (i) the occurrence and duration of vocal duets covary with physical closeness and (ii) contact maintenance is a secondary function of duet participation.
animal communication; vocal duet; radio-telemetry; Thryothorus; Grallina; contact maintenance
Recent research has demonstrated that bird song learning is influenced by social factors, but so far has been unable to isolate the particular social variables central to the learning process. Here we test the hypothesis that eavesdropping on singing interactions of adults is a key social event in song learning by birds. In a field experiment, we compared the response of juvenile male song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) to simulated adult counter-singing versus simulated solo singing. We used radio telemetry to follow the movements of each focal bird and assess his response to each playback trial. Juveniles approached the playback speakers when exposed to simulated interactive singing of two song sparrows, but not when exposed to simulated solo singing of a single song sparrow, which in fact they treated similar to heterospecific singing. Although the young birds approached simulated counter-singing, neither did they approach closely, nor did they vocalize themselves, suggesting that the primary function of approach was to permit eavesdropping on these singing interactions. These results indicate that during the prime song-learning phase, juvenile song sparrows are attracted to singing interactions between adults but not to singing by a single bird and suggest that singing interactions may be particularly powerful song-tutoring events.
vocal learning; radio telemetry; song learning; Melospiza melodia; eavesdropping; song sparrow
Physically challenging signals are likely to honestly indicate signaler quality. In trilled bird song two physically challenging parameters are vocal deviation (the speed of sound frequency modulation) and trill consistency (how precisely syllables are repeated). As predicted, in several species, they correlate with male quality, are preferred by females, and/or function in male-male signaling. Species may experience different selective pressures on their songs, however; for instance, there may be opposing selection between song complexity and song performance difficulty, such that in species where song complexity is strongly selected, there may not be strong selection on performance-based traits. I tested whether vocal deviation and trill consistency are signals of male quality in house wrens (Troglodytes aedon), a species with complex song structure. Males’ singing ability did not correlate with male quality, except that older males sang with higher trill consistency, and males with more consistent trills responded more aggressively to playback (although a previous study found no effect of stimulus trill consistency on males’ responses to playback). Males singing more challenging songs did not gain in polygyny, extra-pair paternity, or annual reproductive success. Moreover, none of the standard male quality measures I investigated correlated with mating or reproductive success. I conclude that vocal deviation and trill consistency do not signal male quality in this species.
We studied the use of song types and their acoustic features in different social contexts in the banded wren (Thryothorus pleurostictus), a resident tropical songbird in which males possess about 20 distinctive song types varying in duration, bandwidth, note composition, and trill structure. We recorded six focal males intensively for four days each while we observed context information such as during versus after dawn chorus, presence of the female, counter-versus solo-singing, location at the edge versus centre of the territory, and proximity to the nest. All males used at least some song types differentially during each of these pairs of alternative contexts. Males also preferentially used the song types they shared with a given neighbour when interacting with that bird. Songs delivered during dawn chorus were significantly longer, wider in bandwidth, often compound (double songs), and more likely to contain a rattle or buzz and an up-sweeping trill, compared to songs delivered after dawn chorus. Similar features were also more commonly observed when birds were engaged in intense male-male interactions and boundary disputes after dawn chorus, especially when countersinging at the edge of the territory. The presence of the female caused the male to deliver song types with narrower whole-song and trill bandwidth and fewer rattles and buzzes, and song-type diversity and fraction of compound songs were higher when the female was present. Thus, in addition to using type matching and variations in song-type switching and diversity to signal different levels of aggressive intention, male banded wrens also select song types based on their acoustic structure in different social contexts.
Birdsong serves to attract mates and to deter territorial rivals. Even though song is not restricted to males, this dual function has almost exclusively been demonstrated for male song. To test the generality of hypotheses on birdsong, we investigated female song in the sex-role reversed, classically polyandrous African black coucal (Centropus grillii) in the context of female–female competition. We compared spontaneously vocalizing females with females vocally responding to a playback simulating a conspecific intruder. Females changed vocal parameters in response to playbacks: They lowered the pitch of their vocalizations and enhanced the duration of song elements when being challenged. Also, the composition of the vocalizations was altered. There was no significant correlation between pitch and body size parameters in spontaneous song, but there was for response songs, with larger females having a lower pitch. These changes in vocal properties suggest that the vocalizations are important for mutual assessment of competitive abilities in females. Our findings confirm the general role of intrasexual competition in vocal communication of birds.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s00265-009-0836-0) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Female birdsong; Sex-role reversal; Signal evolution; Aggressive signals; Signal reliability; Vocal communication; Centropus grillii
Individuals often differ consistently in behaviour across time and contexts, and such consistent behavioural differences are commonly described as personality. Personality can play a central role in social behaviour both in dyadic interactions and in social networks. We investigated whether explorative behaviour, as proxy of personality of territorial male great tits (Parus major), predicts their own and their neighbours' territorial responses towards simulated intruders. Several weeks prior to playback, subjects were taken from the wild to test their exploratory behaviour in a standard context in the laboratory. Exploratory behaviour provides a proxy of personality along a slow–fast explorer continuum. Upon release, males were radio-tracked and subsequently exposed to interactive playback simulating a more or a less aggressive territorial intruder (by either overlapping or alternating broadcast songs with the subjects' songs). At the same time, we radio-tracked a neighbour of the playback subject. Male vocal responses during playback and spatial movements after playback varied according to male explorative behaviour and playback treatment. Males with lower exploration scores approached the loudspeaker less, and sang more songs, shorter songs and songs with slower element rates than did males with higher exploration scores. Moreover, neighbour responses were related to the explorative behaviour of the subject receiving the playback but not to their own explorative behaviour. Our overall findings reveal for the first time how personality traits affect resource defence within a communication network providing new insights on the cause of variation in resource defence behaviour.
personality; territorial signalling; radio-tracking; interactive playback; communication networks
Although vocal interactions in songbirds have been well studied, little is known about the extent to which birds attend to their conspecifics' interactions. Attending to others' interactions can provide valuable information since vocal interactions are often asymmetrical and can reflect differences in the state or quality of the signallers. Playback experiments with simulated dyadic interactions showed that male territorial nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) attend to asymmetries in interactions and respond more strongly to rivals that overlap the songs of their counterpart. In order to test if nightingales respond differently to two interacting rivals that are alternating songs asymmetrically (with leader–follower roles), we simulated an interaction using a dual-speaker design. Subjects discriminated between the simulated singing strategies and responded more intensely at the loudspeaker playing the preceding songs. This suggests that individuals whose songs precede in an interaction when there is no acoustic overlap are perceived as more serious rivals. Intense responses to the preceding songs compared with intense responses to the overlapping (non-preceding) songs in a previous study also indicate that discrimination is not the result of one specific proximate cue such as greater attention to the first- or last-heard stimulus. Thus, these results provide further evidence that by listening to asymmetries in conspecifics vocal interactions, receivers can obtain valuable information on their relative differences.
Some species of songbirds elevate testosterone in response to territorial intrusions while others do not. The search for a general explanation for this interspecific variation in hormonal response to social challenges has been impeded by methodological differences among studies. We asked whether song playback alone is sufficient to bring about elevation in testosterone or corticosterone in the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), a species that has previously demonstrated significant testosterone elevation in response to a simulated territorial intrusion when song was accompanied by a live decoy. We studied two populations of juncos that differ in length of breeding season (6–8 v. 14–16 weeks), and conducted playbacks of high amplitude, long-range song. In one population, we also played low amplitude, short-range song, a highly potent elicitor of aggression in juncos and many songbirds. We observed strong aggressive responses to both types of song, but no detectable elevation of plasma testosterone or corticosterone in either population. We also measured rise in corticosterone in response to handling post-playback, and found full capacity to elevate corticosterone but no effect of song class (long-range or short-range) on elevation. Collectively, our data suggest that males can mount an aggressive response to playback without a change in testosterone or corticosterone, despite the ability to alter these hormones during other types of social interactions. We discuss the observed decoupling of circulating hormones and aggression in relation to mechanisms of behavior and the cues that may activate the HPA and HPG axes.
Although recreational birdwatchers may benefit conservation by generating
interest in birds, they may also have negative effects. One such potentially
negative impact is the widespread use of recorded vocalizations, or “playback,”
to attract birds of interest, including range-restricted and threatened species.
Although playback has been widely used to test hypotheses about the evolution of
behavior, no peer-reviewed study has examined the impacts of playback in a
birdwatching context on avian behavior. We studied the effects of simulated
birdwatchers’ playback on the vocal behavior of Plain-tailed Wrens
Thryothorus euophrys and Rufous Antpittas Grallaria
rufula in Ecuador. Study species’ vocal behavior was monitored for
an hour after playing either a single bout of five minutes of song or a control
treatment of background noise. We also studied the effects of daily five minute
playback on five groups of wrens over 20 days. In single bout experiments,
antpittas made more vocalizations of all types, except for trills, after
playback compared to controls. Wrens sang more duets after playback, but did not
produce more contact calls. In repeated playback experiments, wren responses
were strong at first, but hardly detectable by day 12. During the study, one
study group built a nest, apparently unperturbed, near a playback site. The
playback-induced habituation and changes in vocal behavior we observed suggest
that scientists should consider birdwatching activity when selecting research
sites so that results are not biased by birdwatchers’ playback. Increased
vocalizations after playback could be interpreted as a negative effect of
playback if birds expend energy, become stressed, or divert time from other
activities. In contrast, the habituation we documented suggests that frequent,
regular birdwatchers’ playback may have minor effects on wren behavior.
Songbirds respond to initial playback of a recorded conspecific song in numerous ways, from changes in gene expression in the brain to changes in overt physical activity. When the same song is presented repeatedly, responses have been observed to habituate at multiple levels: molecular, cellular and organismal. Core criteria of habituation have been established at each level, although in no case have all the formal parameters been rigorously measured. At the level of overt behavior, classical field studies showed that territorial birds respond to the song of a potential challenger with a variety of behaviors, and many (but not all) of these behaviors decline with repeated stimulus presentation. More recent laboratory studies have defined analogous responses to song presentation in the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata), the dominant species in current molecular and neurobiological research and one that does not use song for territorial defense. Studies in the zebra finch have also demonstrated activation followed by habituation of responses measured at both electrophysiological and molecular (gene expression and signal transduction) levels. In all cases, habituation is specific for a very particular stimulus - an individual song presented in a particular context. There are strong correlations between habituation measurements made at these different levels, but some dissociations have also been observed, implying that molecular, electrophysiological and behavioral habituations are not equivalent manifestations of a single core process.
Zebra finch; sparrow; zenk; ERK; IEG; habituation; latency
To investigate the ecological relevance of brain gene regulation associated with singing behavior in songbirds, we challenged freely ranging song sparrows with conspecific song playbacks within their breeding territories. Males responded by approaching the speaker, searching for an intruder and actively singing. In situ hybridization of brain sections revealed significantly higher expression of the transcriptional regulator ZENK in challenged birds than in unstimulated controls in several auditory structures and song control nuclei. We conclude that singing behavior in the context of territorial defense is associated with gene regulation in brain centers that control song perception and production, and that behaviorally regulated gene expression can be used to investigate brain areas involved in the natural behaviors of freely ranging animals.
Avian; Immediate early gene; Learning; Neuroethology; Vocal communication
In studies of birdsong learning, imitation-based assays of stimulus memorization do not take into account that tutored song types may have been stored, but were not retrieved from memory. Such a 'silent' reservoir of song material could be used later in the bird's life, e.g. during vocal interactions. We examined this possibility in hand-reared nightingales during their second year. The males had been exposed to songs, both as fledglings and later, during their first full song period in an interactive playback design. Our design allowed us to compare the performance of imitations from the following categories: (i) songs only experienced during the early tutoring; (ii) songs experienced both during early tutoring and interactive playbacks; and (iii) novel songs experienced only during the simulated interactions. In their second year, birds imitated song types from each category, including those from categories (i) and (ii) which they had failed to imitate before. In addition, the performance of these song types was different (category (ii) > category (i)) and more pronounced than for category (iii) songs. Our results demonstrate 'silent' song storage in nightingales and point to a graded influence of the time and the social context of experience on subsequent vocal imitation.
Juvenile male zebra finches develop their song by imitation. Females do not sing but are attracted to males' songs. With functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Event Related Potentials (ERPs) we tested how early auditory experience shapes responses in the auditory forebrain of the adult bird. Adult male birds kept in isolation over the sensitive period for song learning showed no consistency in auditory responses to conspecific songs, calls, and syllables. Thirty seconds of song playback each day over development, which is sufficient to induce song imitation, was also sufficient to shape stimulus-specific responses. Strikingly, adult females kept in isolation over development showed responses similar to those of males that were exposed to songs. We suggest that early auditory experience with songs may be required to tune perception towards conspecific songs in males, whereas in females song selectivity develops even without prior exposure to song.
song learning; auditory forebrain; sensory; auditory responses; sensitive period