Behaviour 2019
Discrimination and salience of natural variation in song syllables
Nora H Prior1, Adam R Fishbein1, Jane A Brown1,2, Gregory F Ball1, Robert J Dooling1. 1Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, United States; 2School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, United States

Birdsong research often investigates the significance of rhythm, timing, and the number and order of elements in a song. However, our recent work raises the hypothesis that the variation within individual song syllables carries more behaviorally-relevant information than the order of syllables. Even for an individual, the acoustic features of syllables and notes vary across renditions and contexts. The extent to which this acoustic variation is discriminable and behaviorally relevant remains largely unknown. Here, using psychophysical paradigms and playback experiments, we highlight the behavioral relevance of within-syllable acoustic variation for zebra finches.  First, we show that zebra finches can easily discriminate between the renditions of syllables and motifs of multipe males’ songs. Next, we show that unpaired female zebra finches modulate their calling in response to manipulations of only the syllables in male song. These results contribute to accumulating evidence that syllable-level acoustic variation is a primary mode of communication for zebra finches.