Social factors in bird-song development: Learning to sing with friends and rivals

Learn Behav. 2021 Mar;49(1):137-149. doi: 10.3758/s13420-020-00441-6.


Laboratory studies have revealed that social factors are key in bird-song learning. Nevertheless, little is known about how or why birds choose the songs they do learn from the many they will hear under natural conditions. We focus on various theories concerning social song learning that have been offered to date, with special attention paid to two axes of social factors. First, does song learning occur via direct interaction of the young bird with song tutors, or via social eavesdropping by the young bird on interacting singers (social modeling of song)? Social modeling, a hypothesis first proposed by Pepperberg (Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 55(2), 139-160, 1981), and direct interaction are not mutually exclusive hypotheses, and the evidence we review suggests both play a role in song learning. Second, does song learning occur via interactions with rivals (territorial competitors) or with friends (mutually tolerant or even cooperative territorial neighbors). These are largely mutually exclusive hypotheses, and can really only be tested in the field. There is little evidence on this contrast to date. We review our recent study on song sparrows, which indicates that both the young bird and his primary tutor may benefit from song learning/tutoring. If this mutual benefit result is confirmed by further studies, we believe that song "tutoring" in these cases may be more than a term of convenience: that it may qualify as true teaching.

Keywords: Communication; Social learning; Song learning; Teaching.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds
  • Friends*
  • Humans
  • Social Factors
  • Vocalization, Animal*