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Anim Behav. 2000 Sep;60(3):297-306.

A species-specific acoustic cue for selective song learning in the white-crowned sparrow.

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Section of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, University of California, Davis


Song learning in birds is paradoxical. Without tutoring, songbirds do not develop normal songs. Yet despite this inability, birds possess extensive foreknowledge, in a mechanistic sense, about the normal song of their species. When given a choice of tape recordings, young, näive songbirds select sounds of their own species for imitation. We tape-tutored white-crowned sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha, with a set of manipulated songs to investigate whether the introductory whistle universally present in white-crowned sparrow song guides selective song learning in this species. Our results confirm that this whistle serves as a cue for song learning, enabling acquisition of normally rejected sounds of other species, including hermit thrush, Catharus guttatus, notes, which have a sound quality distinct from that of natural white-crowned sparrow phrases. Our results support the conclusion that sensory mechanisms rather than motor constraints are primarily responsible for the selectivity seen in song learning.


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