Journal of Comparative Physiology A

, Volume 197, Issue 4, pp 351–359 | Cite as

Songbirds tradeoff auditory frequency resolution and temporal resolution

  • Kenneth S. Henry
  • Megan D. Gall
  • Gavin M. Bidelman
  • Jeffrey R. Lucas
Original Paper


Physical tradeoffs may in some cases constrain the evolution of sensory systems. The peripheral auditory system, for example, performs a spectral decomposition of sound that should result in a tradeoff between frequency resolution and temporal resolution. We assessed temporal resolution in three songbird species using auditory brainstem responses to paired click stimuli. Temporal resolution was greater in house sparrows (Passer domesticus) than Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) and white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), as predicted based on previous observations of broader auditory filters (lower frequency resolution) in house sparrows. Furthermore, within chickadees, individuals with broader auditory filters had greater temporal resolution. In contrast to predictions however, temporal resolution was similar between chickadees and nuthatches despite broader auditory filters in chickadees. These results and the results of a model simulation exploring the effect of broadened auditory filter bandwidth on temporal resolution in the auditory periphery strongly suggest that frequency resolution constrains temporal resolution in songbirds. Furthermore, our results suggest that songbirds have greater temporal resolution than some mammals, in agreement with recent behavioral studies. Species differences in temporal resolution may reflect adaptations for efficient processing of species-specific vocalizations, while individual differences within species may reflect experience-based developmental plasticity or hormonal effects.


Auditory brainstem response Auditory filter Frequency resolution Songbird Temporal resolution 



Auditory brainstem response


Auditory evoked potential


Compound action potential


Equivalent rectangular bandwidth


Peri-stimulus time histogram


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth S. Henry
    • 1
  • Megan D. Gall
    • 2
  • Gavin M. Bidelman
    • 1
  • Jeffrey R. Lucas
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing SciencesPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological SciencesPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA

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