Clarifying Complexity: Birdsong Development

Final illustration

Background Information

The behavior of learning song for birds is a complex and lesser known process. To begin with, it is important to note that in terms of nature versus nurture, birds are innately born with a preference to their own species' song. However their proficiency at singing depends on their exposure to their species' song. A bird that grows up around others of its kind will sing more accurately than a bird raised in isolation.

Birds have two main stages of learning song: the auditory-sensory stage and the sensorimotor stage. The auditory-sensory stage takes place during the bird's earliest years, during which is the best time for the bird to hear its own species' song. This is called a tutor song, and has been shown to effective whether it is an actual bird or a recording. The learning bird makes little to no attempts at singing during this stage.

The next stage is the sensorimotor stage, which contains three phases. For the first phase, it is called the template phase because the bird listens to the tutor song and begins forming a template from which it can compare its own singing. The bird begins attempts at singing, but it is comparable to a baby's babbling. The next stage is called plastic song and consists of the bird singing louder and more proficiently; however there are still inaccuracies compared to the tutor song.

Finally the last stage is called crystallization. The bird's song crystallizes and forms song that is accurate to the template that it learned. By this time, the bird is a young adult or full-fledged adult.

Work in progress

Project Goals

This illustration was made to clarify the process of birds learning to sing during development. Since this process involves detailed development of the brain in the context of a bird's growth and behavior, one of the main goals of this project was to break this information down into easily understandable terms without overwhelming the user with information. The species shown here is the blue-winged warbler, as it has known sound spectrograms of its song at various stages in its life and can serve as a classic example of birdsong development.



Narrowing down the dense information and also finding a way to display it in a handout format were significant challenges for this project. Key points from the process had to be chosen carefully according to what could be digested quickly by viewing the poster versus what was supplementary to the main message. As a result, we decided to focus on the behavioral development of the bird in the context of its age and exclude the brain development related to song behavior. Since the process of brain development during birdsong learning is complex in its own, we decided that it would require its own illustration. This could be a project that could be explored later to serve as supplementary information to this handout. 



Date Started: 12/1/2013
Date Completed: 12/11/2013
Audience: College level animal behavior and biology students
Materials: Adobe Photoshop
Final Deliverable: 8.5" x 11" handout



The above images are the initial pencil sketches for this project. The second image shows a revised layout that was later brought into Photoshop for final rendering.