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J Exp Biol. 2000 Jun;203(Pt 12):1845-55.

Vocal tract function in birdsong production: experimental manipulation of beak movements.

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Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology Group, Department of Zoology, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708, USA.


Kinematic analyses have demonstrated that the extent to which a songbird's beak is open when singing correlates with the acoustic frequencies of the sounds produced, suggesting that beak movements function to modulate the acoustic properties of the vocal tract during song production. If motions of the beak are necessary for normal song production, then disrupting the ability of a bird to perform these movements should alter the acoustic properties of its song. We tested this prediction by comparing songs produced normally by white-throated sparrows and swamp sparrows with songs produced when the beak was temporarily immobilized. We also observed how temporarily loading the beak of canaries with extra mass affected vocal tract movements and song production. Disruption of vocal tract movements resulted in the predicted frequency-dependent amplitude changes in the songs of both white-throated sparrows and swamp sparrows. Canaries with mass added to their beak sang with their beak open more widely than normal and produced notes with greater harmonic content than those without weights. Both manipulations resulted in acoustic changes consistent with a model in which beak motions affect vocal tract resonances, thus supporting the hypothesis that dynamic vocal tract motions and post-production modulation of sound are necessary features of normal song production.

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