Dynamics of the vocal imitation process: how a zebra finch learns its song

Science. 2001 Mar 30;291(5513):2564-9. doi: 10.1126/science.1058522. Epub 2001 Mar 15.


Song imitation in birds provides good material for studying the basic biology of vocal learning. Techniques were developed for inducing the rapid onset of song imitation in young zebra finches and for tracking trajectories of vocal change over a 7-week period until a match to a model song was achieved. Exposure to a model song induced the prompt generation of repeated structured sounds (prototypes) followed by a slow transition from repetitive to serial delivery of syllables. Tracking this transition revealed two phenomena: (i) Imitations of dissimilar sounds can emerge from successive renditions of the same prototype, and (ii) developmental trajectories for some sounds followed paths of increasing acoustic mismatch until an abrupt correction occurred by period doubling. These dynamics are likely to reflect underlying neural and articulatory constraints on the production and imitation of sounds.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Animals
  • Imitative Behavior / physiology*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Music
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Pitch Perception
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*