Juvenile zebra finches learn the underlying structural regularities of their fathers' song

Otília Menyhart, Oren Kolodny*, Michael H. Goldstein, Timothy J. DeVoogd, Shimon Edelman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Natural behaviors, such as foraging, tool use, social interaction, birdsong, and language, exhibit branching sequential structure. Such structure should be learnable if it can be inferred from the statistics of early experience. We report that juvenile zebra finches learn such sequential structure in song. Song learning in finches has been extensively studied, and it is generally believed that young males acquire song by imitating tutors (Zann, 1996). Variability in the order of elements in an individual's mature song occurs, but the degree to which variation in a zebra finch's song follows statistical regularities has not been quantified, as it has typically been dismissed as production error (Sturdy et al., 1999). Allowing for the possibility that such variation in song is non-random and learnable, we applied a novel analytical approach, based on graph-structured finite-state grammars, to each individual's full corpus of renditions of songs. This method does not assume syllable-level correspondence between individuals. We find that song variation can be described by probabilistic finite-state graph grammars that are individually distinct, and that the graphs of juveniles are more similar to those of their fathers than to those of other adult males. This grammatical learning is a new parallel between birdsong and language. Our method can be applied across species and contexts to analyze complex variable learned behaviors, as distinct as foraging, tool use, and language.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number571
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberMAY
StatePublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Menyhart, Kolodny, Goldstein, DeVoogd and Edelman.


  • Birdsong
  • Song structure
  • Statistical learning
  • Vocal development
  • Zebra finch


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