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The eavesdropping hypothesis also explains Burt et al. (2007)’s finding that juveniles learn more songs from an early tutor than its late counterpart. At the end of their experiment, juveniles selectively retain the songs from early tutors that are appropriate replies to the late tutor. Since the juveniles have a better memory for songs earlier in life, they are able to remember more appropriate replies and therefore retain more songs.


There has been much recent progress on the social aspects of song learning in songbirds. Research has shown the importance of interaction, eavesdropping, tutors, and tutor types in the song learning process. However, there is still room for much more research on topics such as song culture, dialects, imitation, maintenance, and the effects of brood size and rearing environment on song learning. Studying such topics will not only help us understand song learning in birds but also speech learning in humans.

a healthy sparrow hatchling being held in a human hand.
A healthy sparrow hatchling!

Discussion questions

  1. What are the adaptive advantages of learning of bird songs?
  2. What is de novo late learning of songs and how is it different from selective attrition?
  3. Why is eavesdropping the preferred method of song learning over direct interaction in sparrows?


  • Adaptive trait – a genetically coded characteristic that has evolved because of its benefits to the fitness of individuals in a species
  • Conspecifc – pertaining to the same species
  • Countersinging – the act of singing in response to the song of another bird. Occurs during song learning and communication
  • Eavesdropping – observing the interaction between two other birds without being directly involved in the interaction
  • Honest communication – a signal from one organism to another that reveals a characteristic of the sender, usually pertaining to its fitness. A sender might want, for example, to let the recipient know that it is a fast runner, so the recipient will not waste time chasing it
  • Imitation – technique used by songbirds to copy some characteristic of the song of another bird; can be conspecific or heterospecific
  • Innate – a characteristic that is inherently part of an organism; heritable by genes
  • Juvenile – a young bird that has yet reached sexual maturity
  • Migratory – describes a bird species or subspecies that participates in seasonal journeys to different regions for food, habitat, mates, etc.
  • Natal – refers to the hatching of a bird. For example, natal summer refers to the summer a bird hatches
  • Plastic – describes a song that is still subject to alteration; not fully crystallized
  • Sedentary – describes a bird that is non-migratory
  • Sensitive period – the period in a young songbird’s life when the bird is particularly sensitive to songs and song learning
  • Sexual selection – selection that works on characteristics that affects an individual’s ability to obtain mates
  • Social learning – learning a new behavior through observation of others in the learner’s social environment; may involve models, imitation, and operant learning
  • Song repertoire – the number of songs a bird has learned and uses regularly
  • Tutor – a bird, usually an older bird, that shares his songs with another, whether knowingly or unknowingly


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  • Baptista LF. 1985. The functional significance of song sharing in the white-crowned sparrow. Can J Zool. 63:1741-1752.
  • Baptista LF, Bell DA, Trail PW. 1993. Song learning and production in the white-crowned sparrow: parallels with sexual imprinting. Netherlands J Zool. 43:17-33.
  • Baptista LF, Petrinovich L. 1984. Social interaction, sensitive phases and the song template hypothesis in the white-crowned sparrow. Anim Behav. 32:172-181. Juvenile songbirds learn songs more efficiently and effectively from live birds than tape-recordings of songs.
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  • Beecher MD. 1996. Birdsong learning in the laboratory and field. In: Kroodsma DE, Miller EH, editors. Ecology and Evolution of Acoustic Communication in Birds. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 61-78.
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About the author

I am an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Psychology double major at Rice University (as of 2010). I like birds, especially my pet African Gray parrot, Goose (some know me as the “bird-man” in high school). Unlike juvenile sparrows, Goose can learn the vocal productions of just about any species, plus things like telephones, ice cream trucks, and, unfortunately, fire alarms. Interestingly, I have never caught Goose using birdsongs to try to gain territory status among sparrows.

a photo of the author hodling a bird.
A picture of me and Goose, my African Gray parrot. Goose is a bit camera shy.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Mockingbird tales: readings in animal behavior. OpenStax CNX. Jan 12, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11211/1.5
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