Research objectives and content
Bird song is an ideal model with which to study nature and nurture interaction in a complex acoustic communication system. Research has been heavily biased towards male song birds, simply because in many species only maIes sing. The proposed study will investigate the influence of early song exposure on females' preferences with a new approach, which elegantly circumvents the problem that females do not produce the songs they might have learned. Song will be used as a positive reinforcer in an operant Skinner box set up. All exposure to song is controlled by the subjects pecking keys to set off playback. Preferences can be assessed by comparing the relative frequencies of choices. Zebra finches are easily bred in the laboratory, so all song input during development can be controlled. In order to disentangle social and sexual preferences young birds will be raised by their mothers only and tutored with song on tape. Presented songs will contain or lack elements that have just been shown to be very attractive to females. Tests conducted in adulthood will first assess preferences for familiar versus unfamiliar songs. Subsequently, test songs will be carefully edited either to remove or add the more attractive elements. In this way the relation between unlearned biases for certain song features and early experience will be tested for the first time. Training content (objective, benefit and expected impact)
The study uses a new approach which is likely to have an important impact for future research in the field. Adapted Skinner boxes for this purpose have just been developed in Leiden, thereby providing the unique location for instruction and facilities. I would be involved in further developing the methodology and exploiting its potential in addressing new questions. Furthermore, the laboratory has a long standing research record in the complementary fields of imprinting and song learning and their evolutionary consequences. A period in that laboratory would therefore be of enourmous benefit for me.
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