Potential trade-off between vocal ornamentation and spatial ability in a songbird

Kendra B. Sewall, Jill A. Soha, Susan Peters, Stephen Nowicki


Bird song is hypothesized to be a reliable indicator of cognition because it depends on brain structure and function. Song features have been found to correlate positively with measures of cognition, but the relationship between song and cognition is complicated because not all cognitive abilities are themselves positively correlated. If cognition is not a unitary trait, developmental constraints on brain growth could generate trade-offs between some aspects of cognition and song. To further clarify the relationship between song and cognition in song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), we examined repertoire size and performance on a spatial task. We found an inverse relationship between repertoire size and speed of spatial learning and suggest that a developmental trade-off between the hippocampus and song control nuclei could be responsible for this relationship. By attending to male song, females may learn about a suite of cognitive abilities; this study suggests that females may glean information about a male's cognitive weaknesses as well as his strengths.

  • Received April 15, 2013.
  • Accepted May 2, 2013.
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