Vocal learning has evolved in only a few groups of mammals and birds. The developmental and evolutionary origins of vocal learning remain unclear. The imitation of a memorized sound is a clear example of vocal learning, but is that when vocal learning starts? Here we use an ontogenetic approach to examine how vocal learning emerges in a songbird, the chipping sparrow. The first vocalizations of songbirds, food begging calls, were thought to be innate, and vocal learning emerges later during subsong, a behavior reminiscent of infant babbling. Here we report that the food begging calls of male sparrows show several characteristics associated with learned song: male begging calls are highly variable between individuals and are altered by deafening; the production of food begging calls induces c-fos expression in a forebrain motor nucleus, RA, that is involved with the production of learned song. Electrolytic lesions of RA significantly reduce the variability of male calls. The male begging calls are subsequently incorporated into subsong, which in turn transitions into recognizable attempts at vocal imitation. Females do not sing and their begging calls are not affected by deafening or RA lesion. Our results suggest that, in chipping sparrows, intact hearing can influence the quality of male begging calls, auditory-sensitive vocal variability during food begging calls is the first step in a modification of vocal output that eventually culminates with vocal imitation.