The Nowicki Lab at Duke University



Song Learning & Cognition

Since the pioneering work of Peter Marler—some of which included Susan Peters as a collaborator—song learning in songbirds has been an important model for understanding the neural underpinnings of speech development, perception, and production. Our lab continues to be interested in mechanisms of song learning, as well the implications of how birds learn to sing for understanding both the functions of song and its cultural evolution.

Following from our interest in the developmental stress hypothesis, we've tested the idea that developmental stress forges an association between learned attributes of song and various cognitive abilities, which—if true—means that the quality of song learning should be a reliable indicator of male cognitive abilities in general. That is, by mating with a male with well-learned songs, females are choosing a "smarter" mate, which could benefit her directly if that male is a better parent and/or indirectly if cognitive abilities are heritable, providing a reason why females might benefit by mating with a male with well-learned songs. Such does not appear to be the case, however, at least not for song sparrows and swamp sparrows, where instead we've found that different cognitive measures generally do not correlate with each other, nor do they reliably correlate with measures of song learning. There's nothing like real data to crush an otherwise beautiful hypothesis...

Here are some of our papers on song learning, cultural transmission, and cognition:

Searcy WA, Ocampo D & Nowicki S. 2019. Constraints on song type matching in a songbird. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 73: 102 doi:10.1007/s00265-019-2708-6

Lachlan RF, Ratmann O & Nowicki S. 2018. Cultural conformity generates extremely stable traditions in bird song. Nature Communications 9: 2417 doi:10.1038/s41467-018-04728-1

DuBois AL, Nowicki S, Peters S, Rivera-Cáceres KD & Searcy WA. 2018. Song is not a reliable signal of general cognitive ability in a songbird. Animal Behaviour 137: 205-213.

Peters S & Nowicki S. 2017. Overproduction and attrition: the fates of songs memorized during song learning in songbirds. Animal Behaviour 124: 255-261.

Anderson RC, Searcy WA, Peters S, Hughes M, DuBois AL & Nowicki S. 2017. Song learning and cognitive ability are not consistently related in a songbird. Animal Cognition 20: 309-320.

Prather JF, Peters S, Nowicki S & Mooney R. 2010. Persistent representation of juvenile experience in the adult songbird brain. Journal of Neuroscience 30: 10586-10598.

Here's a good review explaining why we originally thought that song learning should correlate with other cognitive abilities in the context of the developmental stress hypothesis:

Peters S, Searcy WA & Nowicki S. 2014. Developmental stress, song learning, and cognition. Integrative and Comparative Biology 54: 555-567.

And here's a thought piece we wrote about the evolution of vocal learning in general:

Nowicki S & Searcy WA. 2014. The evolution of vocal learning. Current Opinion in Neurobiology 28: 48-53.


Nowicki Lab
Department of Biology
Box 90338, Duke University
Durham, NC  27708-0338  USA
Lab phone: 919-684-6950