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Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2003 Jan;79(1):41-50.

Rapidly learned song-discrimination without behavioral reinforcement in adult male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata).

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Beckman Institute, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801, USA.


Zebra finches communicate via several distinct vocalizations, of which song is the most studied. Behavioral observations indicate that adults are able to discriminate among the songs of different conspecific individuals. In the wild, zebra finches live in structured but mobile colonies, and encounter new individuals on a frequent basis. Thus it seems plausible that adult finches might have the capacity to recognize and remember new songs they encounter on a single day, but this has never been directly tested. Here we devised a simple observational assay to determine whether adult male zebra finches show recognition of a song they have heard repeatedly from taped playbacks, over a single three hour period the day before. We quantified the rate of production of six discrete behaviors (short calls, contact calls, singing, short hops, long hops, and beak swipes) made by adult male zebra finches as they listened to the playbacks. At the onset of song playback, all birds suspended these behaviors and sat silently-occasionally moving their heads. Then, after a measurable period ("response latency"), the birds resumed these activities. We observed that the response latency was long (approximately 10 min) when birds were hearing a particular song for the first time. The response latency was much shorter (approximately 1-2 min) when the birds had heard the same song the day before. Thus, functional song memories must result from as little as 3 h of passive song-exposure. These results suggest that ongoing song learning may play a natural role in the daily life of adult zebra finches, and provide a behavioral reference point for studies of molecular and physiological plasticity in the adult auditory system.

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