Vocal tract articulation in zebra finches

PLoS One. 2010 Jul 30;5(7):e11923. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011923.


Background: Birdsong and human vocal communication are both complex behaviours which show striking similarities mainly thought to be present in the area of development and learning. Recent studies, however, suggest that there are also parallels in vocal production mechanisms. While it has been long thought that vocal tract filtering, as it occurs in human speech, only plays a minor role in birdsong there is an increasing number of studies indicating the presence of sound filtering mechanisms in bird vocalizations as well.

Methodology/principal findings: Correlating high-speed X-ray cinematographic imaging of singing zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) to song structures we identified beak gape and the expansion of the oropharyngeal-esophageal cavity (OEC) as potential articulators. We subsequently manipulated both structures in an experiment in which we played sound through the vocal tract of dead birds. Comparing acoustic input with acoustic output showed that OEC expansion causes an energy shift towards lower frequencies and an amplitude increase whereas a wide beak gape emphasizes frequencies around 5 kilohertz and above.

Conclusion: These findings confirm that birds can modulate their song by using vocal tract filtering and demonstrate how OEC and beak gape contribute to this modulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cineradiography
  • Female
  • Male
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*