Practice, Perfect: How Birds Learn Songs

Songbirds listen, learn, and practice a lot like we do. As nestlings they tune in to neighborhood songs by listening closely and committing them to memory. It is only later, after they’ve fledged, that young birds begin to practice. The early practice songs are messy and unstructured, a lot like the babblingbabble:in humans, to practice talking by stringing together sounds, as babies do before they can produce clear words or sentences, analogous to plastic song in songbirds of a young child. After many months of practice, songbirds refine their songs and settle on a repertoire, which often stays fixed for the rest of their lives.

Songbirds need tutors too

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White-throated Sparrow by Michaela Sagatova

Sparrows are famous songsters. They’ve been well studied and have taught us much about the song learning process.3 Like many songbirdssongbird:a species from the oscine (ah-SEEN) group of passerine (PASS-er-een) birds, songbirds (including sparrows, thrushes, and warblers) have a specialized voice box called a syrinx that can produce complex sounds, songbirds must learn their songs rather than developing them instinctively, sparrow nestlings listen closely to nearby males and then use these tutortutor:in songbirds which do not develop their songs instinctively, one of the adults that a young bird listens to as a nestling and models its adult song on songs as templates for their own songs. If you remove a young sparrow from his nest and isolate him from tutors, he will never develop normal (or crystallizedcrystallized song:in birds, one of the songs that songbirds settle on after learning and practicing, often remaining constant in adulthood ) adult song.

Recording from the Macaulay Library

In White-throated Sparrows, adult males sing a series of pure tones that require precise control of the syrinx and throat muscles.

Crystallized song of an adult White-throated Sparrow:
Recording from the Macaulay Library

 

Practice makes perfect

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Carolina Wren by Joey Herron

Many songbirds are prolific singers. Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) repeat the same song hundreds of times before moving to the next song in their large repertoiresrepertoire: the full range of vocal sounds that an animal makes, each used in context to communicate specific messages. Becoming an accomplished performer requires a focused period of song learning (sensory period sensory period:in songbirds, the early months of life before they practice singing that they most easily learn the songs of nearby tutors) and an intensive period of practice (sensorimotor period sensorimotor period:in songbirds, the period during which the bird practices its song, usually following fledging). For most songbirds these are distinct learning phases: (1) as nestlings, birds memorize the songs of their neighborhoods neighborhood:in birds, the set of adjacent territories or display sites surrounding a focal territory or site; then (2) as juveniles, they move to a new territory and practice those songs until they can masterfully defend a territory.

This practicing Carolina Wren is starting to get into the rhythm, but still needs some practice before it’s perfect.

Plastic song of a young Carolina Wren:
Recording by Paul Driver

Here’s an adult Carolina Wren song, with its precise rhythm perfected.

Crystallized song of an adult Carolina Wren:
Recording from the Macaulay Library

 

Eavesdropping is best

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Song Sparrow by Michaela Sagatova

You can learn an awful lot from what you overhear. Birds can too. In fact, research on Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) has revealed that young males learn more from listening in on interactions among neighborhood neighborhood: in birds, the set of adjacent territories or display sites surrounding a focal territory or site
males than from solo tutortutor:in songbirds which do not develop their songs instinctively, one of the adults that a young bird listens to as a nestling and models its adult song on performances. This may seem surprising at first, but there is a lot more information packed into a heated exchange than a solo, including cues about which song patterns and singing strategies are most winning. This is crucial know-how: the birds most successful at defending territories are those whose song types (adults learn up to 13 separate types) most accurately match the various songs of their neighbors.4

All the elements are here for this young Song Sparrow; he just needs to get them in the right order.

Plastic song of a young Song Sparrow:
Recorded by Chris Templeton

Here, the same Song Sparrow has grown up a bit and finally mastered the crystallized adult form of this song.

Crystallized song of an adult Song Sparrow:
Recorded by Chris Templeton

 

Not a true songbird, but still learns its song

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Little Hermit by Dave Irving

Along with parrots and bellbirds, hummingbirds are one of the rare bird groups that learn their songs even though they are not true songbirdssongbird:a species from the oscine (ah-SEEN) group of passerine (PASS-er-een) birds, songbirds (including sparrows, thrushes, and warblers) have a specialized voice box called a syrinx that can produce complex sounds, songbirds must learn their songs rather than developing them instinctively—a good example of how learning can evolve multiple times from different ancestors.5 The Little Hermit (Phaethornis longuemareus) is a tiny hummingbird that uses its song to attract females at display sites in tropical South America. Each Little Hermit sings in a local dialect dialect:a unique set of sounds made by a subpopulation of animals of the same species very similar to his direct neighbors but quite different from more distant birds.

This Little Hermit’s early song is simpler than what he’ll sing as an adult.

Plastic song of a young Little Hermit:
Recorded by Julian Kapoor
This is the same Little Hermit months later: he sings a more complex song the same way each time.

Crystallized song of an adult Little Hermit:
Recorded by Julian Kapoor

Learning like the birds

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Young singer from Shutterstock

Songbirds and humans have a lot in common on the learning front. Baby birds babblebabble:in humans, to practice talking by stringing together sounds, as babies do before they can produce clear words or sentences, analogous to plastic song in songbirds just as humans do. Like birds, humans need to hear themselves and others in order to produce normal adult sounds. And just as it is much harder for us to learn languages after childhood, most birds experience a critical period critical period:in songbirds, the time as a nestling (and sometimes beyond) during which the bird is most sensitive to learning the sounds of nearby birds as nestlings when they are best able to learn song. There is even recent evidence that some songbirds can learn syntax syntax:a particular ordering of vocalizations that produces a specific meaning in a similar way to how we learn to string together sentences.6

Listen as this two-year-old learns the ABCs.

Plastic song of a young child:
Recorded by a proud parent
Now for a jazzy grown up version by musician Nate Marshall.

Crystallized (and jazzy) song of a adult musician:
Recorded by Mya Thompson

Further Learning

Interactive: Practice, Perfect

Compare learning juveniles and seasoned adult songbirds side-by-side

Hear Practice vs. Perfect >