Assessing the Importance of Social Factors in Bird Song Learning: A Test Using Computer-Simulated Tutors


John Burt, University of Washington, Box 351525, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.


We used a mixed live/synthetic tutoring design to investigate whether the social factors of eavesdropping on adult singing interactions and/or direct interaction with a tutor would influence song learning in song sparrows (Melospiza melodia). Males were brought into the laboratory at 4–5 d-old, hand-raised and then tutored by two pairs of adult song sparrows in June and July From January through March of the next year, subjects received tutoring from computer simulations of two of the original live tutors. The first, non-interactive, model simulated one of the earlier tutors singing ‘naturalistic’ bouts of song with no interaction with the subject. The second, interactive, model simulated a different early tutor that behaved similarly to the non-interactive model, but synchronized its singing with the subject, and tried to match the subject’s song. Subjects learned relatively more from their interactive late tutor and his early partner, and showed no tendency to learn more from their late than their early-only tutors. These results support the eavesdropping hypothesis, and also suggest that direct interaction with the tutor is a relevant social factor.