Birdsong, like speech, is a learned vocal behaviour that relies greatly on hearing; in both songbirds and humans the removal of auditory feedback by deafening leads to a gradual deterioration of adult vocal production. Here we investigate the neural mechanisms that contribute to the processing of auditory feedback during the maintenance of song in adult zebra finches. We show that the deleterious effects on song production that normally follow deafening can be prevented by a second insult to the nervous system--the lesion of a basal ganglia-forebrain circuit. The results suggest that the removal of auditory feedback leads to the generation of an instructive signal that actively drives non-adaptive changes in song; they also suggest that this instructive signal is generated within (or conveyed through) the basal ganglia-forebrain pathway. Our findings provide evidence that cortical-basal ganglia circuits may participate in the evaluation of sensory feedback during calibration of motor performance, and demonstrate that damage to such circuits can have little effect on previously learned behaviour while conspicuously disrupting the capacity to adaptively modify that behaviour.