Statistical learning for vocal sequence acquisition in a songbird

Sci Rep. 2020 Feb 10;10(1):2248. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-58983-8.


Birdsong is a learned communicative behavior that consists of discrete acoustic elements ("syllables") that are sequenced in a controlled manner. While the learning of the acoustic structure of syllables has been extensively studied, relatively little is known about sequence learning in songbirds. Statistical learning could contribute to the acquisition of vocal sequences, and we investigated the nature and extent of sequence learning at various levels of song organization in the Bengalese finch, Lonchura striata var. domestica. We found that, under semi-natural conditions, pupils (sons) significantly reproduced the sequence statistics of their tutor's (father's) songs at multiple levels of organization (e.g., syllable repertoire, prevalence, and transitions). For example, the probability of syllable transitions at "branch points" (relatively complex sequences that are followed by multiple types of transitions) were significantly correlated between the songs of tutors and pupils. We confirmed the contribution of learning to sequence similarities between fathers and sons by experimentally tutoring juvenile Bengalese finches with the songs of unrelated tutors. We also discovered that the extent and fidelity of sequence similarities between tutors and pupils were significantly predicted by the prevalence of sequences in the tutor's song and that distinct types of sequence modifications (e.g., syllable additions or deletions) followed distinct patterns. Taken together, these data provide compelling support for the role of statistical learning in vocal production learning and identify factors that could modulate the extent of vocal sequence learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Finches*
  • Learning*
  • Vocalization, Animal*