Beak gape dynamics during song in the zebra finch

J Neurobiol. 2004 Jun;59(3):289-303. doi: 10.1002/neu.10327.


Bird song is a complex communication behavior that requires the coordination of several motor systems. Sound is produced in the syrinx and then modified by the upper vocal tract, but the specific nature and dynamics of this modification are not well understood. To determine the contribution of beak movements to sound modification, we studied the beak gape patterns in zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). Subsyringeal air sac pressure and song were recorded together with changes in beak gape, which were monitored with a magneto-sensitive transducer. Beak gape was positively correlated with fundamental frequency, peak frequency, and subsyringeal air sac pressure in all but one bird. For harmonic stacks, peak frequency increased with increasing beak gape, and the relationship between fundamental frequency and beak gape was no longer significant. Experimentally holding the beak open or closed had acoustic consequences consistent with the model in which beak movements change upper vocal tract length and, thus, the filter properties. Beak gape was positively correlated with sound amplitude in all but two birds. The relationship between beak aperture and amplitude may, however, be indirect because air sac pressure is correlated with amplitude and beak gape. The beak is opened quickly and to its widest aperture immediately prior to the onset of sound and at rapid transitions in sound, suggesting that beak movements may affect vibratory behavior of the labia.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acoustics
  • Air Pressure
  • Air Sacs / physiology
  • Animals
  • Beak / physiology*
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Male
  • Motion Pictures / instrumentation
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Regression Analysis
  • Respiration
  • Songbirds
  • Sound Spectrography / instrumentation
  • Sound Spectrography / methods
  • Sound*
  • Stereotyped Behavior
  • Video Recording / instrumentation
  • Video Recording / methods
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*