Are song sequencing rules learned by song sparrows?

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Although the effects of learning on song structure have been extensively studied in songbirds, little attention has been given to the learning of syntax at the level of song sequences. Here we investigate song syntax learning in two cohorts of hand-reared song sparrows, Melospiza melodia: an isolate group, consisting of four males raised with no exposure to external song models, and a trained group, consisting of 17 males exposed to recorded song sequences during the sensitive period for song learning. The isolate males followed three syntactical rules previously described for field-recorded song sparrows: (1) they produced their song type repertoires with eventual variety, repeating a song type multiple times before switching to another; (2) they cycled through their repertoires using close to the minimum number of bouts; and (3) they showed consistent preferences for singing certain of their song types more than others. The trained males were tutored with sequences with exaggerated eventual variety and cycling patterns and no usage preferences, but their syntax was little affected by any of these training features. One syntactical pattern that was affected by external experience was the rule that long bouts of a song type are followed by long recurrence intervals before that type is produced again. Isolate males showed no bout length/recurrence interval correlations while trained males showed reduced correlations relative to field-recorded males, implicating learning in the development of the normal pattern. Other songbird species have been found to preferentially use song type transitions as adults that they were tutored with as juveniles, but the trained song sparrows in this study showed no evidence of such effects.





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Peters, S, J Soha, WA Searcy and S Nowicki (2022). Are song sequencing rules learned by song sparrows?. Animal Behaviour, 192. pp. 75–84. 10.1016/j.anbehav.2022.07.015 Retrieved from

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Stephen Nowicki

Professor of Biology

Our lab studies animal communication, asking both proximate and ultimate questions about how signaling systems function and how they evolve. Most of our work is done with birds, although lab members have studied a variety of other taxa. One major theme that runs through our work is to understand how signal reliability (“honesty”) is maintained in the face of the competing evolutionary interests of signal senders and receivers. We use both laboratory experiments and field-based analyses to test hypotheses about the costs of signal production, which theory suggests are necessary to maintain reliability. For example, we have demonstrated that the reliability of birdsong as a signal of quality in the context of mate choice is maintained by variation in the response of young birds to early developmental stress, which in turn affects brain development and song learning. Another theme that runs through our work concerns how animals themselves perceive signals, in particular the role of categorical perception in communication. Our work here began with birdsong, for example demonstrating context-dependent variation in category boundaries that define the smallest acoustic units of song (“notes”), and identifying categorical responses of neurons in the “song system” of the brain to variation in those notes. More recently, we have begun to study categorical perception in visual signaling, demonstrating for example that the carotenoid-based orange-red coloration commonly used in assessment signaling may be perceived categorically. This finding illustrates the connection between our interests in perception and reliability, given that canonical models of reliability assume continuous perception.

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