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The Onset of Song Learning and Song Tutor Selection in Fledgling Zebra Finches


Richard Zann, Department of Zoology, La Trobe University, Melbourne, 3086 Australia. E-mail:


We investigated song development in the pre-independent zebra finch (aged 15–35 d), a period when neural pathways for song learning and production are forming and social influences outside the family are limited. Expt 1 investigated the onset and the minimum duration of tutoring needed for song learning in fledglings. We found most begin to learn song from 25 d of age and need about 10 d contact with the father tutor to make accurate copies. This onset corresponds with major developments in the formation of the neural circuitry implicated in song acquisition. Subsong also begins on day 25 suggesting that the sensory and motor phases of song learning fully overlap in the zebra finch. Our findings support the hypothesis that the song circuitry is fully functional by 35 d of age and the sensitive phase for zebra finches extends therefore from about days 25–65. However, only the first 10 d of this period are necessary to learn a tutor's song with fair accuracy. Expt 2 investigated the role of the paternal bond, spatial proximity and mating status in a fledgling's choice of song tutor where the father was the sole parent. Young chose the father over single unrelated males (expt 2a) or unrelated males in company with their female partners (expt 2b). Given the close spatial proximity of both potential tutors to the fledglings it is probably the filial bond, established via paternal care that is the cause of this preference. Zebra finches sing the same song phrase in two contrasting contexts: female-directed song during pre-copulatory courtship and undirected song where no female or display is involved. In expt 3 we tested the song learning preference of pre-independent young for two categories of non-paternal tutors: those singing predominantly female-directed song and those singing exclusively undirected song. There was a small, but significant, preference for fledgling zebra finches to copy songs from males that sang female-directed song. This preference is consistent with the hypothesis that young males not only learn the acoustic features of their tutor's song but also the visual and dynamic movements that constitute the courtship display.

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