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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.

Conclusion

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!
http://www.megavideo.com/?v=0QNHN4JV09314>.

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?

Glossary

  • 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

References

  • Baicich PJ, Harrison CJO. 1997. Wood warblers, tanagers, cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows, buntings, blackbirds, and allies (Emberizidae). In: A guide to the nests, eggs, and nestlings of North American birds. 2nd ed. San Diego, California: Academic Press. p. 271-319.
  • Baker MC. 2001. Bird song research: the past 100 years. Bird Behav. 14:3-50.
  • 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.
  • Baptista LF, Petrinovich L. 1986. Song development in the white-crowned sparrow: social factors and sex differences. Anim Behav. 34:1359-1371.
  • 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.
  • Beecher MD, Brenowtiz EA. 2005. Functional aspects of song learning in songbirds. Trends Ecol Evol. 20:143-149.
  • Beecher MD, Burt JM. 2004. The role of social interaction in bird song learning. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 16:224-228.
  • Beecher MD, Burt JM, O'Loghlen AL, Templeton CC, Campbell SE. 2007. Bird song learning in an eavesdropping context. Anim Behav. 73:929-935.
  • Beecher MD, Campbell SE, Nordby JC. 2000. Territory tenure in song sparrow is related to song sharing with neighbours, but not to repertoire size. Anim Behav. 59:29-37. Songbirds sharing more songs with neighbors are better at territory possession than birds sharing fewer songs
  • Beecher MD, Campbell SE, Stoddard PK. 1994. Correlation of song learning and territory establishment strategies in the song sparrow. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 91:1450-1454. Juvenile songbirds learn songs from multiple tutors and preferentially learn songs that are shared by multiple tutors.
  • Best, LB. 1977. Territory Quality and Mating Success in the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla). Condor. 79:192-204.
  • Brainard MS, Doupe AJ. 2002. What songbirds teach us about learning. Nature. 417:351-358.
  • Burt JM, Campbell SE, Beecher MD. 2001. Song type matching as threat: a test using interactive playback. Anim Behav. 62:1163-1170.
  • Burt JM, O'Loghlen AL, Templeton CN, Campbell SE, Beecher MD. 2007. Assessing the importance of social factors in bird song learning: A test using computer-simulated tutors. Ethology. 113:917-925.
  • Cunningham MA, Baker MC. 1983. Vocal learning in white-crowned sparrows: sensitive phase and song dialects. Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 13:259-269.
  • DeWolfe BB, Baptista LF, Petrinovich L. 1989. Song development and territory establishment in Nuttall’s white-crowned sparrows. Condor. 91:397-407.
  • Doupe AJ, Kuhl PK. 1999. Birdsong and human speech: common themes and mechanisms. Annu Rev Neurosci. 22:567-631.
  • Garamszegi LZ, Eens M. 2004. Brain space for a learned task: strong intraspecific evidence for neural correlates of singing behaviour in songbirds. Brain Res Rev. 44:187–193.
  • Gil D, Gahr M. 2002. The honesty of bird song: multiple constraints for multiple traits. Trends Ecol Evol. 17:133–141.
  • Goldstein MH, King AP, West MJ. 2003. Social interaction shapes babbling: Testing parallels between birdsong and speech. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 100:8030-8035.
  • Kroodsma DE, Pickert R. 1984. Sensitive phases for song learning: Effects of social interaction and individual variation. Anim Behav. 32:389-394.
  • Leahy CW. 2004. Development of young. In: The birdwatcher’s companion to North American birdlife. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. p. 883-894.
  • Marler, P. 1970a. Birdsong and speech development: could there be parallels? Am Sci. 58:669-673.
  • Marler P. 1970b. A comparative approach to vocal learning: song development in white-crowned sparrows. J Comp Physiol Psychol Monogr. 71:1-25. Juvenile songbirds only learns normal songs if stimulated by conspecific song during a sensitive period.
  • Marler P, Nelson DA. 1993. Action-based learning: a new form of developmental plasticity in bird song. Netherlands J Zool. 43:91-103.
  • Marler P, Peters S. 1987. A sensitive period for song acquisition in the song sparrow, melospiza melodia - a case of age-limited learning. Ethol. 76:89-100.
  • Nelson DA, Marler P. 1994. Selection-based learning in bird song development. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 91:10498-10501.
  • Nelson DA, Marler P, Palleroni A. 1995. A comparative approach to vocal learning: intraspecific variation in the learning process. Anim Behav. 50:83-97.
  • Nice MM. 1937. Studies in the life history of the song sparrow I: a population study of the song sparrow. Trans Linn Soc NY. 4:1-247.
  • Nice MM. 1941. The role of territory in bird life. Am Midl Nat. 26:441-487.
  • Nordby JC, Campbell SE, Beecher MD. 1999. Ecological correlates of song learning in sparrows. Behav Ecol. 10:287-297.
  • Nordby JC, Campbell SE, Beecher MD. 2001. Late song learning in song sparrows. Anim Behav. 61:835-846.
  • Nordby JC, Campbell SE, Burt JM, Beecher MD. 2000. Social influences during song development in the song sparrow: a laboratory experiment stimulating field conditions. Anim Behav. 59:1187-1197.
  • Petrinovich L, Baptista LF. 1987. Song development in the white-crowned sparrow: modification of learned song. Anim Behav. 35:961-974.
  • Searcy WA, Andersson M. 1986. Sexual selection and the evolution of song. Annu Rev Ecol Syst. 17:507-533.
  • Soha JA, Lohr B, Gill DE. 2009. Song development in the grasshopper sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum. Anim Behav. 77:1479-1489.
  • Soha JA, Marler P. 2001. Cues for early discrimination of conspecific song in the white-crowned sparrow (zonotrichia leucophrys). Ethol. 107:813-826.
  • Templeton CN, Akcay C, Campbell SE, Beecher MD. 2010. Juvenile sparrows preferentially eavesdrop on adult song interactions. Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 277: 447-453. During song learning phase, juvenile song sparrows prefer singing interactions over the singing of one bird.
  • Wheelwright NT, Swett MB, Levin II, Kroodsma DE, Freeman-Gallant CR, Williams H. 2008. The influence of different tutor types on song learning in a natural bird population. Anim Behav. 75:1479-1493.
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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.

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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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