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Horm Behav. 2009 Jan;55(1):217-27. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2008.10.006. Epub 2008 Nov 1.

Time course of changes in Gambel's white-crowned sparrow song behavior following transitions in breeding condition.

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Graduate Program in Neurobiology and Behavior, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.


Seasonal changes in behavior and in its underlying neural substrate are common across animal taxa. These changes are often triggered by steroid sex hormones. Song in seasonally breeding songbirds provides an excellent example of this phenomenon. In these species, dramatic seasonal changes mediated by testosterone and its metabolites occur in adult song behavior and in the neural circuitry controlling song. While song rate can quickly change in response to seasonal breeding cues, it is unknown how quickly other aspects of song change, particularly the stereotypy of song phonology and syntax. In this study we determined whether and how quickly song rate, phonology, and syntax change in response to breeding and non-breeding physiological cues. We asked these questions using Gambel's white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii), a closed-ended learner with well-characterized changes in the neural circuitry controlling song behavior. We exposed ten photosensitive sparrows to long-day photoperiod and implanted them with subcutaneous testosterone pellets (day 0) to simulate breeding conditions. We continuously recorded song and found that song rate increased quickly, reaching maximum around day 6. The stereotypy of song phonology changed more slowly, reaching maximum by day 10 or later. Song syntax changed minimally after day 6, the earliest time point examined. After 21 days, we transitioned five birds from breeding to non-breeding condition. Song rate declined precipitously. These results suggest that while song rate changes quickly, song phonology changes more slowly, generally following or in parallel with previously investigated changes in the neural substrate.

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