Juvenile sparrows preferentially eavesdrop on adult song interactions

Christopher N. Templeton, Çağlar Akçay, S. Elizabeth Campbell, Michael D. Beecher


Recent research has demonstrated that bird song learning is influenced by social factors, but so far has been unable to isolate the particular social variables central to the learning process. Here we test the hypothesis that eavesdropping on singing interactions of adults is a key social event in song learning by birds. In a field experiment, we compared the response of juvenile male song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) to simulated adult counter-singing versus simulated solo singing. We used radio telemetry to follow the movements of each focal bird and assess his response to each playback trial. Juveniles approached the playback speakers when exposed to simulated interactive singing of two song sparrows, but not when exposed to simulated solo singing of a single song sparrow, which in fact they treated similar to heterospecific singing. Although the young birds approached simulated counter-singing, neither did they approach closely, nor did they vocalize themselves, suggesting that the primary function of approach was to permit eavesdropping on these singing interactions. These results indicate that during the prime song-learning phase, juvenile song sparrows are attracted to singing interactions between adults but not to singing by a single bird and suggest that singing interactions may be particularly powerful song-tutoring events.


    • Received August 17, 2009.
    • Accepted September 28, 2009.
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