A Critical Period for Songbirds

Institute Member Sarah London, Ph.D. sees zebra finch song learning as opportunity for broader findings


London, S.E. (2019). Developmental song learning as a model to understand neural mechanisms that limit and promote the ability to learn. Behavioural Processes, 163, 13-23. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2017.11.008. PubMed PMID: 29162376.


Songbirds famously learn their vocalizations. Some species can learn continuously, others seasonally, and still others just once. The zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) learns to sing during a single developmental “Critical Period,” a restricted phase during which a specific experience has profound and permanent effects on brain function and behavioral patterns. The zebra finch can therefore provide fundamental insight into features that promote and limit the ability to acquire complex learned behaviors. For example, what properties permit the brain to come “on-line” for learning? How does experience become encoded to prevent future learning? What features define the brain in receptive compared to closed learning states? This piece will focus on epigenomic, genomic, and molecular levels of analysis that operate on the timescales of development and complex behavioral learning. Existing data will be discussed as they relate to Critical Period learning, and strategies for future studies to more directly address these questions will be considered. Birdsong learning is a powerful model for advancing knowledge of the biological intersections of maturation and experience. Lessons from its study not only have implications for understanding developmental song learning, but also broader questions of learning potential and the enduring effects of early life experience on neural systems and behavior.