adult male zebra finch web copy.JPG (13936 bytes)

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The Animal We Study

Work in our lab focuses on a songbird, the zebra finch.  We are interested in zebra finches because like humans, they must learn to vocalize in order to communicate with one another.  As with human language, zebra finch song patterns are learned during sensitive periods of early development. 

Another important aspect of zebra finch vocal behavior is that only males sing.  Song is used by males to court females, but they will also sing spontaneously, even when no females are present.  Young males learn to sing by imitating their father's song.  In this way, song patterns are passed from generation to generation. 

Song learning involves several cognitive processes.  Juvenile males must attend to, hear, and memorize the song pattern of an adult male (termed ‘auditory learning’).  Later in development, birds practice in order to learn to reproduce the song memorized earlier in life, a process that requires auditory feedback and auditory-motor integration (termed ‘sensory-motor learning’).  Shown below is a timeline of zebra finch vocal development.  Note that as male zebra finches reach adulthood (80-100 days of age), their vocal patterns crystallize.  As adults, they cannot learn a new song. 

song learning timeline.JPG (45926 bytes)


Below are audiospectrograms produced by a male zebra finch (G174) at different stages of sensory-motor learning (click on each audiospectrogram to hear it).  Sensory-motor learning begins with subsong, characterized by the production of highly variable song syllables and syllable sequences.  Subsong is considered analogous to the vocal babbling produced by human infants.  G174 was 42 days of age when this recording was made. 

subsong.JPG (35290 bytes)


With practice, juvenile birds develop plastic song, where specific song syllables and a syllable sequence begin to emerge.  Syllables that will be included in the final adult song are evident, but sequencing errors are common.  These errors are similar to the phonological mistakes made by young children as they learn a language.  G174 was 60 days of age when this recording was made. 

plastic song.JPG (39429 bytes)


As zebra finches reach adult song, individual syllables and the syllable sequence become stereotyped.   Here, three introductory syllables preceded three renditions of the song pattern.   G174 was 127 days of age when this recording was made. 

adult song.JPG (38699 bytes)


Much of the neural circuitry that controls juvenile learning and adult recitation of song is known.  Interestingly, this circuitry is reduced in size or absent in non-singing females.  Together, these features make the zebra finch a uniquely-useful model system to study interactions between early experience and brain development, development of sex differences in brain and behavior, and neural mechanisms of learning and memory. 


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