Circuits, hormones, and learning: vocal behavior in songbirds

J Neurobiol. 1997 Nov;33(5):602-18. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1097-4695(19971105)33:5<602::aid-neu8>;2-8.


Species-typical vocal patterns subserve species identification and communication for individual organisms. Only a few groups of organisms learn the sounds used for vocal communication, including songbirds, humans, and cetaceans. Vocal learning in songbirds has come to serve as a model system for the study of brain-behavior relationships and neural mechanisms of learning and memory. Songbirds learn specific vocal patterns during a sensitive period of development via a complex assortment of neurobehavioral mechanisms. In many species of songbirds, the production of vocal behavior by adult males is used to defend territories and attract females, and both males and females must perceive vocal patterns and respond to them. In both juveniles and adults, specific types of auditory experience are necessary for initial song learning as well as the maintenance of stable song patterns. External sources of experience such as acoustic cues must be integrated with internal regulatory factors such as hormones, neurotransmitters, and cytokines for vocal patterns to be learned and produced. Thus, vocal behavior in songbirds is a culturally acquired trait that is regulated by multiple intrinsic as well as extrinsic factors. Here, we focus on functional relationships between circuitry and behavior in male songbirds. In that context, we consider in particular the influence of sex hormones on vocal behavior and its underlying circuitry, as well as the regulatory and functional mechanisms suggested by morphologic changes in the neural substrate for song control. We describe new data on the architecture of the song system that suggests strong similarities between the songbird vocal control system and neural circuits for memory, cognition, and use-dependent plasticity in the mammalian brain.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Female
  • Hormones / physiology*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*


  • Hormones