Songbirds are an important model system for the study of the neurological bases of song learning, but variation in song learning accuracy and adult song complexity remains poorly understood. Current models of sexual selection predict that signals such as song must be costly to develop or maintain to constitute honest indicators of male quality. It has been proposed that reductions of nestling condition during song development might limit the expression of song learning. Adult song could thus act as an indicator of early stress as only males that enjoy good condition during development could learn accurately and sing long songs or large repertoires. We tested this hypothesis in the zebra finch by modifying early condition through cross-fostering chicks to small, medium, and large broods. Song learning was very accurate and was found to reflect very closely tutor song characteristics and to depend on the number of males in the tutoring group. Although the brood size manipulation strongly affected several measures of nestling condition and adult biometry, we found no relationship between early condition and song learning scores or song characteristics. Similarly, brain mass and high vocal center (HVC), robust nucleus of the arcopallium (RA), and lateral magnocellular nucleus of the anterior nidopallium (LMAN) volumes did not covary with nestling condition and growth measurements. We found no significant relationship between song repertoire size and HVC and RA volumes, although there was a nonsignificant trend for HVC to increase with increasing proportion of learnt elements in a song. In conclusion, the results provide no evidence for song learning to be limited by nestling condition during the period of nutritional dependence from the parents in this species.
(c) 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. J Neurobiol, 2006.