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J Neurobiol. 1997 Nov;33(5):517-31.

Comparative approaches to the avian song system.

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Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle 98195-1525, USA.


There is extensive diversity among the 4000 species of songbirds in different aspects of song behavior, including the timing of vocal learning, sex patterns of song production, number of songs that are learned (i.e., repertoire size), and seasonality of song behavior. This diversity provides unparalleled opportunities for comparative studies of the relationship between the structure and function of brain regions and song behavior. The comparative approach has been used in two contexts: (a) to test hypotheses about mechanisms of song control, and (b) to study the evolution of the control system in different groups of birds. In the first context, I review studies in which a comparative approach has been used to investigate sex differences in the song system, the relationship between the number of song types a bird sings and the size of the song nuclei, and seasonal plasticity of the song control circuits. In the second context, I discuss whether the vocal control systems of parrots and songbirds were inherited from a common ancestor or independently evolved. I also consider at what stage in the phylogeny of songbirds the hormone-sensitive forebrain circuit found in modern birds first evolved. I conclude by identifying directions for future research in which a comparative approach would be productive.

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