Wild Birds Learn Songs from Experimental Vocal Tutors

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Abstract

In eight groups of animals, including humans and songbirds, juveniles are understood to learn vocalizations by listening to adults [1–4]. Experimental studies of laboratory-reared animals support this hypothesis for vocal learning [5–7], yet we lack experimental evidence of vocal learning in wild animals. We developed an innovative playback technology involving automated loudspeakers that broadcast songs with distinctive acoustic signatures. We used this technology to simulate vocal tutors in the wild and conducted year-long tutoring sessions to five cohorts of free-living migratory Savannah Sparrows in eastern Canada. We confirm that wild birds learn songs by listening to adult conspecific animals, and we show that they pass these songs on to subsequent generations. Further, we provide the first experimental evidence in the wild that the timing of exposure to tutor song influences vocal learning: wild Savannah Sparrows preferentially learn songs heard during both their natal summer and at the outset of their first breeding season. This research provides direct experimental evidence of song learning by wild animals and shows that wild birds learn songs during two critical stages of development early in life. Video Abstract: [Figure presented] Using playback to broadcast novel songs, Mennill et al. show that wild Savannah Sparrows learn songs by listening to adult tutors. Birds preferentially learn songs heard during both their natal summer and the outset of their first breeding season. Birds that learn from simulated vocal tutors also pass these songs on to subsequent generations.

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Mennill, D. J., Doucet, S. M., Newman, A. E. M., Williams, H., Moran, I. G., Thomas, I. P., … Norris, D. R. (2018). Wild Birds Learn Songs from Experimental Vocal Tutors. Current Biology, 28(20), 3273-3278.e4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2018.08.011

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