Reward and vocal production: song-associated place preference in songbirds

Physiol Behav. 2012 May 15;106(2):87-94. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.01.010. Epub 2012 Jan 21.


Vocal production is crucial for successful social interactions in multiple species. Reward can strongly influence behavior; however, the extent to which reward systems influence vocal behavior is unknown. In songbirds, singing occurs in different contexts. It can be spontaneous and undirected (e.g., song produced alone or as part of a large flock) or directed towards a conspecific (e.g., song used to attract a mate or influence a competitor). In this study, we developed a conditioned place preference paradigm to measure reward associated with different types of singing behavior in two songbird species. Both male zebra finches and European starlings developed a preference for a chamber associated with production of undirected song, suggesting that the production of undirected song is tightly coupled to intrinsic reward. In contrast, neither starlings nor zebra finches developed a place preference in association with directed song; however, male starlings singing directed song that failed to attract a female developed a place aversion. Unsuccessful contact calling behavior was also associated with a place aversion. These findings suggest that directed vocal behavior is not tightly linked to intrinsic reward but may be externally reinforced by social interactions. Data across two species thus support the hypothesis that the production of undirected but not directed song is tightly coupled to intrinsic reward. This study is the first to identify song-associated reward and suggests that reward associated with vocal production differs depending upon the context in which communication occurs. The findings have implications for understanding what motivates animals to engage in social behaviors and ways in which distinct reward mechanisms function to direct socially appropriate behaviors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Avoidance Learning
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Conditioning, Classical
  • Finches
  • Male
  • Reward*
  • Species Specificity*
  • Starlings
  • Vocalization, Animal*