The relationship between perception and production in songbird vocal imitation: what learned calls can teach us

J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol. 2002 Dec;188(11-12):897-908. doi: 10.1007/s00359-002-0354-2. Epub 2002 Nov 15.


Songbirds produce calls as well as song. This paper summarizes four studies of the zebra finch long call, used by both sexes in similar behavioral contexts. Female long calls are acoustically simpler than male long calls, which include acoustic features learned during development. Production of these male-typical features requires an intact nucleus robustus archistriatalis, the sexually-dimorphic source of the telencephalic projection to brainstem vocal effectors. In experiments that quantified the long calls produced in response to long call playbacks, intact adult zebra finch males, but not females, show a categorical preference for the long calls of females over those of males. Experiments with synthetic stimuli showed that males classify long call stimuli that they hear by gender, using both spectral and temporal information, but that females use only temporal information. Juvenile males (<45 days) did not show the categorical preference, but it emerged during the same period when the robustus archistriatalis matures anatomically and the first male-typical vocalizations are produced. Adult males with robustus archistriatalis lesions lost the categorical preference for female long calls, suggesting that the robustus archistriatalis plays a role in long call discrimination. These results demonstrate that calls complement song as a potent tool for studying the neurobiology of vocal communication.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Brain / surgery
  • Communication
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Female
  • Imitative Behavior / physiology*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / cytology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Perception / physiology*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Sound Spectrography
  • Teaching
  • Time Factors
  • Vocalization, Animal
  • Voice