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Song-learning Strategies of Songbirds

December 13, 2004

Researchers report that maturing finches use a variety of methods to learn the songs of adult finches. Wan-chun Liu and colleagues at Rockefeller University recorded the songs of 37 juvenile male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) from 15 different groups as they imitated an adult male bird. Producing a song is essential to male finches as they rely on their songs to attract potential mates. The researchers found that the birds employed a serial strategy or a motif strategy to learn the adult’s song. With the serial strategy, the birds broke the song down into different syllables and then repeated each one until they were successful. In the motif strategy, the birds attempted to imitate the song in its entirety, including periods of sound and silence. The birds’ learning strategies were not mutually exclusive; some birds used a combination of both methods. The authors noticed that no one strategy gave a bird a learning advantage, and all were able to produce an imitation of the adult’s song prior to sexual maturity. Because vocal learning in infants develops similarly to songbird learning, the authors suggest that their work will contribute to the understanding of how humans acquire speech.

“Juvenile zebra finches can use multiple strategies to learn the same song,” Wan-chun Liu, Timothy J. Gardner, Fernando Nottebohm PNAS, December 13, 2004

Abstract © 2004 PNAS

Wan-chun Liu, The Rockefeller University