Adult Song Sparrows do not Alter their Song Repertoires


J. Cully Nordby Ecosystem Sciences–ESPM, 151 Hilgard Hall #3110, University of California–Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-3110, USA. E-mail:


To understand fully the function of vocal learning, it is important to know when, during an individual’s lifetime, learning occurs. Songbirds are generally categorized into two groups with respect to their adult song learning ability. ‘Open-ended’ song learners are able to learn to produce new songs in adulthood, whereas ‘age-limited’ song learners can only acquire songs during their first year of life. Researchers have long assumed that certain oscine species are open-ended or age-limited song learners, but the evidence to date has been inadequate to test these assumptions for most species. We tested the hypothesis that song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are age-limited song learners who do not alter their song repertoires in adulthood by examining the song repertoires of 24 color-banded males who were fully recorded in two, three or four different years. We compared sonagrams of the song types produced by males in different years and looked for any changes in repertoire composition (i.e. added or dropped song types). With few exceptions, males produced song repertoires that were identical in every year they were recorded. The exceptions (four males who did not produce one of their song types during one recording session) were all cases in which we believe that we missed recording a song type that a male did indeed have, not that the males dropped a song type. The finding that adult males do not alter the composition of their song repertoires provides strong evidence that song sparrows are age-limited song learners. Although it is possible that song sparrows make subtle within-song type changes across years, such changes would not necessarily constitute new song learning.