Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 196, Issue 8, pp 581–599 | Cite as

Peripheral auditory processing changes seasonally in Gambel’s white-crowned sparrow

  • Melissa L. Caras
  • Eliot Brenowitz
  • Edwin W. RubelEmail author
Original Paper


Song in oscine birds is a learned behavior that plays important roles in breeding. Pronounced seasonal differences in song behavior and in the morphology and physiology of the neural circuit underlying song production are well documented in many songbird species. Androgenic and estrogenic hormones largely mediate these seasonal changes. Although much work has focused on the hormonal mechanisms underlying seasonal plasticity in songbird vocal production, relatively less work has investigated seasonal and hormonal effects on songbird auditory processing, particularly at a peripheral level. We addressed this issue in Gambel’s white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii), a highly seasonal breeder. Photoperiod and hormone levels were manipulated in the laboratory to simulate natural breeding and non-breeding conditions. Peripheral auditory function was assessed by measuring the auditory brainstem response (ABR) and distortion product otoacoustic emissions (DPOAEs) of males and females in both conditions. Birds exposed to breeding-like conditions demonstrated elevated thresholds and prolonged peak latencies when compared with birds housed under non-breeding-like conditions. There were no changes in DPOAEs, however, which indicates that the seasonal differences in ABRs do not arise from changes in hair cell function. These results suggest that seasons and hormones impact auditory processing as well as vocal production in wild songbirds.


Songbird Hormone Season Auditory ABR 



Auditory brainstem response


Androgen receptor


Distortion product otoacoustic emission


Estrogen receptor


First primary tone


Second primary tone


Long day


Level of the first primary tone


Level of the second primary tone


Caudomedial nidopallium


Quality factor


Short day



We thank Brandon Warren, Karin Lent, and Mike Famulare for technical assistance, Kristen Richards Preble for animal care, Jason Sanchez for threshold verification, and members of the Brenowitz and Rubel laboratories for constructive discussion and support. This work was supported by the NIH/NIDCD Grants DC000033, DC003829, DC004661, the Seattle Chapter of Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation (MLC), and the Washington Research Foundation (MLC). All procedures were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Conflict of interest statement


Supplementary material

359_2010_545_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (471 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 471 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Melissa L. Caras
    • 1
  • Eliot Brenowitz
    • 3
    • 4
    • 5
  • Edwin W. Rubel
    • 3
    • 4
    • 6
    • 7
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Neurobiology and Behavior Graduate ProgramUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Virginia Merrill Bloedel Hearing Research CenterUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  3. 3.Virginia Merrill Bloedel Hearing Research CenterUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  5. 5.Department of BiologyUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  6. 6.Department of Otolaryngology-HNSUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  7. 7.Department of Physiology and BiophysicsUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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