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Abstract

Parrots are unusual among birds and animals in general in the extent of their ability to learn new vocalizations throughout life and irrespective of season. The budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus), a small parrot that is well suited for laboratory studies, has been the subject of numerous studies investigating the neurobiology of vocal learning. To date, few studies have focused on the function of vocal imitation by parrots. Previous work from our research group has shown that vocal imitation in budgerigars is sex-biased, as males paired with females learn vocalizations from their new mates, but not vice versa. This bias led us to hypothesize that vocal learning has a reproductive function. To test this hypothesis, we conducted two experiments. In the first experiment, we tutored males so that they could produce a call similar to one shared by a group of experimental females. The experimental females were then presented with one of the tutored males and another, equally unfamiliar, male that had not been tutored. We found that the females spent a greater proportion of time in proximity of, and made more affiliative displays toward, the tutored males. In the second experiment, seven males received small bilateral brain lesions that disrupt vocal learning. These males and an equal number of control males were then released into an aviary containing females and reproductive resources. We found that lesioned and control males were equally successful in obtaining social mates, but females mated to lesioned males were more likely to engage in extra-pair activities. These experiments indicate that a male's ability to imitate a female's call can influence the sexual behavior of the female even though lack of imitation ability does not appear to influence social pairing. We hypothesize that mate choice in budgerigars has multiple stages. Upon meeting a strange male, a female quickly assesses its ability for social acquisition of calls by the presence or absence of a call type similar to its own in its repertoire. As courtship proceeds into pair formation, the female assesses the ability of male to learn more directly by the extent of the male's perfection of imitation.