Social Context Rapidly Modulates the Influence of Auditory Feedback on Avian Vocal Motor Control
Sensory feedback is important for the learning and control of a variety of behaviors. Vocal motor production in songbirds is a powerful model system to study sensory influences on behavior because the learning, maintenance, and control of song are critically dependent on auditory feedback. Based on previous behavioral and neural experiments, it has been hypothesized that songs produced in isolation [undirected (UD) song] represent a form of vocal practice, whereas songs produced to females during courtship interactions [female-directed (FD) song] represent a form of vocal performance. According to this “practice versus performance” framework, auditory feedback should be more influential when birds engage in vocal practice than when they engage in vocal performance. To directly test this hypothesis, we used a computerized system to perturb auditory feedback at precise locations during the songs of Bengalese finches and compared the degree to which feedback perturbations caused song interruptions as well as changes to the sequencing and timing of syllables between interleaved renditions of UD and FD song. We found that feedback perturbation caused fewer song interruptions and smaller changes to syllable timing during FD song than during UD song. These data show that changes in the social context in which song is produced rapidly modulate the influence of auditory feedback on song control in a manner consistent with the practice versus performance framework. More generally, they indicate that, for song, as for other motor skills including human speech, the influence of sensory feedback on activity within vocal premotor circuitry can be dynamically modulated.