Long-range order in canary song

PLoS Comput Biol. 2013;9(5):e1003052. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003052. Epub 2013 May 2.


Bird songs range in form from the simple notes of a Chipping Sparrow to the rich performance of the nightingale. Non-adjacent correlations can be found in the syntax of some birdsongs, indicating that the choice of what to sing next is determined not only by the current syllable, but also by previous syllables sung. Here we examine the song of the domesticated canary, a complex singer whose song consists of syllables, grouped into phrases that are arranged in flexible sequences. Phrases are defined by a fundamental time-scale that is independent of the underlying syllable duration. We show that the ordering of phrases is governed by long-range rules: the choice of what phrase to sing next in a given context depends on the history of the song, and for some syllables, highly specific rules produce correlations in song over timescales of up to ten seconds. The neural basis of these long-range correlations may provide insight into how complex behaviors are assembled from more elementary, stereotyped modules.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Canaries / physiology*
  • Computational Biology / methods*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Models, Biological*
  • Models, Statistical*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*

Grant support

This work is supported by the NSF Science of Learning Center CELEST (SBE-0354378) and by a Career Award at the Scientific Interface to TJG from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a Smith family award to TJG. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.