Animal Cognition

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 309–320 | Cite as

Song learning and cognitive ability are not consistently related in a songbird

  • Rindy C. Anderson
  • William A. SearcyEmail author
  • Susan Peters
  • Melissa Hughes
  • Adrienne L. DuBois
  • Stephen Nowicki
Original Paper


Learned aspects of song have been hypothesized to signal cognitive ability in songbirds. We tested this hypothesis in hand-reared song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) that were tutored with playback of adult songs during the critical period for song learning. The songs developed by the 19 male subjects were compared to the model songs to produce two measures of song learning: the proportion of notes copied from models and the average spectrogram cross-correlation between copied notes and model notes. Song repertoire size, which reflects song complexity, was also measured. At 1 year of age, subjects were given a battery of five cognitive tests that measured speed of learning in the context of a novel foraging task, color association, color reversal, detour-reaching, and spatial learning. Bivariate correlations between the three song measures and the five cognitive measures revealed no significant associations. As in other studies of avian cognition, different cognitive measures were for the most part not correlated with each other, and this result remained true when 22 hand-reared female song sparrows were added to the analysis. General linear mixed models controlling for effects of neophobia and nest of origin indicated that all three song measures were associated with better performance on color reversal and spatial learning but were associated with worse performance on novel foraging and detour-reaching. Overall, the results do not support the hypothesis that learned aspects of song signal cognitive ability.


Song learning Cognition Song complexity Songbird Song sparrow Melospiza melodia 



We thank Caitlin Cantrell, Philippa Tanford, and Nali Gillespie for help with hand-rearing and cognitive testing and Santiago Olivella and Casey Klofstad for assistance with the statistical analysis. We thank the National Science Foundation for supporting this work through Grants to SN (IOS-1144991) and WAS (IOS-1144995).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of Duke University (Protocol A032-14-02) and followed the Guidelines for the Treatment of Animals in Behavioural Research of the Animal Behavior Society and the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesFlorida Atlantic UniversityBoca RatonUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyUniversity of MiamiCoral GablesUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  4. 4.Department of BiologyCollege of CharlestonCharlestonUSA

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