Birdsong learning in the laboratory, with especial reference to the song of the Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata)

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Abstract

Vocal imitation in songbirds exhibits interesting parallels to infant speech development and is currently the model system of choice for exploring the behavioural, molecular and electrophysiological substrates of vocal learning. Among songbirds, the Zebra Finch ( Taeniopygia guttata ) is currently used as the ‘flying mouse’ of birdsong research. Only males sing and they develop their song primarily during a short sensitive period in early life. They learn their speciesspecific song patterns by memorizing and imitating the songs of conspecifics, mainly adults. Since Immelmann's pioneering work, thousands of zebra finches have been raised in strictly controlled auditory environments to examine how their experience affected their songs. In this article, I review the different experimental procedures that have been used in the laboratory to study the social influences on song learning in the Zebra Finch. Poor song learning was observed using passive playback of taped songs, whereas self-eliciting exposure using operant tutoring techniques induced significant learning, but with a high interindividual variability. The success of the training paradigm is often measured by the quality of imitation of the songs to which the young bird is exposed. Using empirical evidence from the field and the laboratory, I will also discuss this issue, by summarizing possible advantages and disadvantages of producing a perfect imitation. So far, the best method to get a close copy of a song model in the Zebra Finch is to place a single young bird with an adult male. This situation, which is rather unnatural, does not meet the criteria for precise control necessary in experimental conditions. Optimizing the methods used to train a zebra finch to learn a song, in order to be able to predict the imitation success, will improve our understanding of the dynamics of vocal production learning. It would also consolidate this species as a research model of relevance to human speech development and disorders. Keywords: Zebra Finch; birdsong; learning; development; memory; social influences

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