In the field of songbird research, many studies have shown the role of male songs in territorial defense and courtship. Calling, another important acoustic communication signal, has received much less attention, however, because calls are assumed to contain less information about the emitter than songs do. Birdcall repertoire is diverse, and the role of calls has been found to be significant in the area of social interaction, for example, in pair, family, and group cohesion. However, standard methods for studying calls do not allow precise and systematic study of their role in communication. We propose herein a new method to study bird vocal interaction. A closed-loop computer system interacts with canaries, Serinus canaria, by (1) automatically classifying two basic types of canary vocalization, single versus repeated calls, as they are produced by the subject, and (2) responding with a preprogrammed call type recorded from another bird. This computerized animal-machine interaction requires no human interference. We show first that the birds do engage in sustained interactions with the system, by studying the rate of single and repeated calls for various programmed protocols. We then show that female canaries differentially use single and repeated calls. First, they produce significantly more single than repeated calls, and second, the rate of single calls is associated with the context in which they interact, whereas repeated calls are context independent. This experiment is the first illustration of how closed-loop bird-computer interaction can be used productively to study social relationships.
© Springer-Verlag 2010