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Vocal Plasticity – are Pied Flycatchers, Ficedula Hypoleuca, Open-Ended Learners?


Ane Eriksen, Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES), Department of Biology, University of Oslo, P.O. Box 1066 Blindern, N-0316 Oslo, Norway.


In some songbird species, large song repertoires are advantageous in female attraction, whereas song sharing with neighbours may give an advantage in male–male competition. Open-ended learners, with the ability to memorize new song elements throughout their lives, may learn from territorial neighbours and thus benefit from increasing both repertoire size and song sharing. A distinction needs to be made between true adult song learning, i.e. memorization of novel song elements, and vocal plasticity resulting in changes in the use of previously memorized elements, such as the use of hidden repertoires or increased production of previously rare syllable types. We assessed the ability of adult pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca males to learn previously unheard song elements and to change their song production in response to playback of unfamiliar, conspecific song, emulating a singing neighbour. After a 1-week playback treatment, three out of 20 subjects had learned foreign song elements, providing evidence from the wild that pied flycatchers are true open-ended learners. However, the syllable sharing with the playback stimulus repertoires had not changed, and the males’ repertoires had decreased rather than increased. Hence, we did not find support for increased syllable sharing with neighbours or increased repertoire size as functions of adult song learning in pied flycatchers. Because pied flycatcher song seems to serve mainly for mate attraction, copying of attractive syllable types is a possible alternative function of adult song learning in this species.