Male songbirds often establish territories and attract mates by singing, and some song features can reflect the singer's condition or quality. The quality of the song environment can change, so male songbirds should benefit from assessing the competitiveness of the song environment and appropriately adjusting their own singing behavior and the neural substrates by which song is controlled. In a wide range of taxa, social modulation of behavior is partly mediated by the arginine vasopressin or vasotocin (AVP/AVT) systems. To examine the modulation of singing behavior in response to the quality of the song environment, we compared the song output of laboratory-housed male Lincoln's sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii) exposed to 1 week of chronic playback of songs categorized as either high or low quality, based on song length, complexity, and trill performance. To explore the neural basis of any facultative shifts in behavior, we also quantified the subjects' AVT immunoreactivity (AVT-IR) in three forebrain regions that regulate sociosexual behavior: the medial bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTm), the lateral septum (LS), and the preoptic area. We found that high-quality songs increased singing effort and reduced AVT-IR in the BSTm and LS, relative to low-quality songs. The effect of the quality of the song environment on both singing effort and forebrain AVT-IR raises the hypothesis that AVT within these brain regions plays a role in the modulation of behavior in response to competition that individual males may assess from the prevailing song environment.
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