Song practice as a rewarding form of play in songbirds

Behav Processes. 2019 Jun;163:91-98. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2017.10.002. Epub 2017 Oct 12.


In adult songbirds, the primary functions of song are mate attraction and territory defense; yet, many songbirds sing at high rates as juveniles and outside these primary contexts as adults. Singing outside primary contexts is critical for song learning and maintenance, and ultimately necessary for breeding success. However, this type of singing (i.e., song "practice") occurs even in the absence of immediate or obvious extrinsic reinforcement; that is, it does not attract mates or repel competitors. Here we review studies that support the hypothesis that song practice is stimulated and maintained by intrinsic reward mechanisms (i.e., that it is associated with a positive affective state). Additionally, we propose that song practice can be considered a rewarding form of play behavior similar to forms of play observed in multiple young animals as they practice sequences of motor events that are used later in primary adult reproductive contexts. This review highlights research suggesting at least partially overlapping roles for neural reward systems in birdsong and mammalian play and evidence that steroid hormones modify these systems to shift animals from periods of intrinsically rewarded motor exploration (i.e., singing in birds and play in mammals) to the use of similar motor patterns in primary reproductive contexts.

Keywords: Communication; Endocannabinoids; Learning; Opioids; Reward.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Mammals / physiology
  • Mammals / psychology
  • Play and Playthings
  • Reward*
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Steroids / physiology
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*


  • Steroids