Animal Cognition

, Volume 21, Issue 4, pp 467–480 | Cite as

Relative salience of syllable structure and syllable order in zebra finch song

  • Shelby L. Lawson
  • Adam R. Fishbein
  • Nora H. Prior
  • Gregory F. Ball
  • Robert J. Dooling
Original Paper


There is a rich history of behavioral and neurobiological research focused on the ‘syntax’ of birdsong as a model for human language and complex auditory perception. Zebra finches are one of the most widely studied songbird species in this area of investigation. As they produce song syllables in a fixed sequence, it is reasonable to assume that adult zebra finches are also sensitive to the order of syllables within their song; however, results from electrophysiological and behavioral studies provide somewhat mixed evidence on exactly how sensitive zebra finches are to syllable order as compared, say, to syllable structure. Here, we investigate how well adult zebra finches can discriminate changes in syllable order relative to changes in syllable structure in their natural song motifs. In addition, we identify a possible role for experience in enhancing sensitivity to syllable order. We found that both male and female adult zebra finches are surprisingly poor at discriminating changes to the order of syllables within their species-specific song motifs, but are extraordinarily good at discriminating changes to syllable structure (i.e., reversals) in specific syllables. Direct experience or familiarity with a song, either using the bird’s own song (BOS) or the song of a flock mate as the test stimulus, improved both male and female zebra finches’ sensitivity to syllable order. However, even with experience, birds remained much more sensitive to structural changes in syllables. These results help to clarify some of the ambiguities from the literature on the discriminability of changes in syllable order in zebra finches, provide potential insight on the ethological significance of zebra finch song features, and suggest new avenues of investigation in using zebra finches as animal models for sequential sound processing.


Auditory perception Hearing Song motif Syllable sequence Syllable structure 



We thank Jane Brown for help with data analysis and figure preparation, Edward Smith for technical expertise, and Bill Idsardi, Juan Uriagereka, and David Vicario for comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.


This work was funded by a T32 training grant to N.H.P and A.F. (NIDCD T-32 DC00046), and a National Science Foundation award (under Grant No. 1449815) to A.F.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethics approval

This work was conducted in accordance with Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) guidelines and was approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) (R-15-09), University of Maryland, College Park.

Supplementary material

10071_2018_1182_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (298 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 8572 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Psychology DepartmentUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUSA
  2. 2.Neuroscience and Cognitive Science ProgramUniversity of MarylandCollege ParkUnited States

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