Behavioral responses to sociosexual signals often depend on gonadal steroid hormones, which are thought to modulate behavior by acting on motivational systems in the brain. There is mounting evidence that sex steroids may also modulate perception of sociosexual signals by affecting sensory processing. In seasonally breeding songbirds such as the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), the female's behavioral response to hearing male song depends on her plasma levels of estradiol (E2). Here, we examined whether plasma E2 also affects the selectivity of the song-induced zenk (egr-1) response in the auditory forebrain, which is known to vary according to the behavioral relevance of song stimuli. Non-breeding females were held on a winter-like photoperiod and implanted with silastic capsules containing either no hormone or E2. E2-treated birds hearing 42 min of conspecific song had more cells immunoreactive for the protein product of zenk in the auditory forebrain than did those hearing frequency-matched synthetic tones. In birds not treated with E2, however, the zenk response to song did not differ from that to tones. We found similar effects in the avian homolog of the inferior colliculus, indicating that E2 may affect the processing of auditory information upstream of the forebrain. Our data suggest that in females, zenk induction in the auditory system is selective for song only when plasma E2 exceeds non-breeding levels. E2-dependent plasticity of auditory pathways and processing centres may promote recognition of and attention to conspecific song during the breeding season.