Social Guidance of Vocal Learning by Female Cowbirds: Validating its Functional Significance


Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27514, U.S.A.


Juvenile male M. a. ater cowbirds, who have never heard other male cowbirds sing, develop distinctively different repertoires when housed with M. a. ater females from their own area versus M. a. obscurus females from a distant population. Because female cowbirds do not sing, the differences in the males' songs do not arise through vocal imitation. Here we provide data demonstrating that the songs of female-housed males are functionally, as well as acoustically, distinctive. The songs of 8 groups of males were tested where the groups differed by age of singer, acoustic experience, and identity of social companion. The playback results demonstrate that non-singing female cowbirds not only stimulate the male to modify song content, but song potency. As such, they demonstrate the critical role female cowbirds may assume in the proximate and ultimate regulation of vocal development.