Song learning and cognitive ability are not consistently related in a songbird

Rindy C. Anderson, William A. Searcy, Susan Peters, Melissa Hughes, Adrienne L. DuBois, Stephen Nowicki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Learned aspects of song have been hypothesized to signal cognitive ability in songbirds. We tested this hypothesis in hand-reared song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) that were tutored with playback of adult songs during the critical period for song learning. The songs developed by the 19 male subjects were compared to the model songs to produce two measures of song learning: the proportion of notes copied from models and the average spectrogram cross-correlation between copied notes and model notes. Song repertoire size, which reflects song complexity, was also measured. At 1 year of age, subjects were given a battery of five cognitive tests that measured speed of learning in the context of a novel foraging task, color association, color reversal, detour-reaching, and spatial learning. Bivariate correlations between the three song measures and the five cognitive measures revealed no significant associations. As in other studies of avian cognition, different cognitive measures were for the most part not correlated with each other, and this result remained true when 22 hand-reared female song sparrows were added to the analysis. General linear mixed models controlling for effects of neophobia and nest of origin indicated that all three song measures were associated with better performance on color reversal and spatial learning but were associated with worse performance on novel foraging and detour-reaching. Overall, the results do not support the hypothesis that learned aspects of song signal cognitive ability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-320
Number of pages12
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017


  • Cognition
  • Melospiza melodia
  • Song complexity
  • Song learning
  • Song sparrow
  • Songbird

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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