Female visual displays affect the development of male song in the cowbird


The role of social stimulation in avian vocal learning is well documented1. The separate contribution of social, as opposed to vocal, stimulation has been difficult to address, however, because in almost all cases both tutor and pupil sing. The opportunity to isolate such effects arose in cowbirds (Molothrus ater ater) after discovering that males housed with non-singing female cowbirds made vocal changes which related directly to the female preferences for native song2–4. Here we report how females communicate with males about songs. We describe a visual display by females, a wing stroke, that is elicited by specific vocalizations. The songs that trigger wing strokes are in turn highly effective releasers of copulatory postures, and thus this previously unnoticed female display has biological significance. The data not only provide the first evidence of the tutorial role of male–female interactions during song ontogeny, they also clearly implicate visual stimulation in song learning, a process that has until now been assumed to be affected only by auditory information5.

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West, M., King, A. Female visual displays affect the development of male song in the cowbird. Nature 334, 244–246 (1988). https://doi.org/10.1038/334244a0

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