Birdsong learning, avian cognition and the evolution of language

William A. Searcy, Stephen Nowicki

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The most language-like aspect of the song of songbirds is its development: as with human speech, birdsong develops through vocal production learning, in which individuals modify the structure of their vocalizations in response to experience with the vocalizations of others. As is true of speech development, birdsong learning qualifies as a cognitive ability, as it involves the acquisition, storage and processing of information obtained from the environment. Accordingly, if cognitive abilities are in general positively associated in songbirds, as has been argued for humans and other mammals, then song learning ability should be positively associated with other cognitive abilities, and learned attributes of song should serve as an indicator of domain-general cognition. A review of studies in which songbirds have been subjected to batteries of cognitive tasks finds, however, that different cognitive measures are not consistently positively associated. Moreover, learned attributes of birdsong do not show consistent positive associations with other cognitive measures. These results argue that, rather than being a component of domain-general cognition, song learning is an autonomous cognitive module. Birdsong learning shows other characteristics of modularization in that it is domain specific, is based on a localized and highly structured neural system and exhibits a level of innate specification. Whether language learning in humans is similarly modularized has been much debated. Despite a possible difference in modularization, much can be learned about the evolution of human language learning from studying birdsong learning. Aspects of birdsong learning that are especially relevant include vocal interaction learning, pragmatics and the initial selective benefits and neural underpinnings of vocal production learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)217-227
Number of pages11
JournalAnimal Behaviour
StatePublished - May 2019


  • avian cognition
  • birdsong
  • modularization
  • song learning
  • vocal production learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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