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Vocal tract motor patterns and resonance during constant frequency song: the white-throated sparrow

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Abstract

Bird song is a complex behavior that requires the coordination of several motor systems. Sound is produced in the syrinx and then modified by the upper vocal tract. Movements of the hyoid skeleton have been shown in the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) to be extensively involved in forming an oropharyngeal–esophageal cavity (OEC), which contributes a major resonance to the vocal tract transfer function. Here we report that a similar relationship exists between the volume of the OEC and the fundamental frequency in the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) whose song, unlike that of the cardinal, consists of a series of almost constant frequency notes. Cineradiography of singing sparrows shows that the oropharyngeal cavity and cranial end of the esophagus expand abruptly at the start of each note and maintain a relatively constant volume until the end of the note. Computation of the vocal tract transfer function suggests a major resonance of the OEC follows the fundamental frequency, making sound transmission more efficient. The presence of similar prominent song-related vocal tract motor patterns in two Oscine families suggests that the active control of the vocal tract resonance by varying the volume of the OEC may be widespread in songbirds.

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Abbreviations

f 0 :

Fundamental frequency

LH:

Distance between larynx and beak–skull transition

LV:

Distance between the larynx and second vertebra

OEC:

Oropharyngeal–esophageal cavity

WTS:

White-throated sparrow

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Acknowledgments

We thank Dr. Donna Maney for providing the birds used in this experiment and Amy Coy for assistance in preparation of the figures. Supported by NIH-NINDS R01 NS029467 to R.A. Suthers and by a Postdoctoral fellowship from the ‘Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina’ (BMBF-LPD 9901/8-127) to T. Riede. We thank Chauncey Frend and Jeff Rogers (Advanced Visualization Lab, Indiana University, Bloomington) for three-dimensional modeling and the video animation. The experiments reported in this paper were reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and the Radiation Safety Office of Indiana University, and comply with the ‘Principles of animal care’, publication no. 86-23, revised 1985 of the National Institute of Health.

Author information

Correspondence to Tobias Riede.

Electronic supplementary material

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This movie shows the X-ray images of lateral views of a white-throated sparrow spontaneously singing one complete song. The shape of the oropharyngeal-esophageal cavity (OEC) is indicated by superimposing a 3D polygonal model of the cavity. The song is first played at normal speed and then repeated in slow motion. During the third repetition the image of the head and neck at normal speed is enlarged and rotated (MOV 27 mb)

This movie shows the X-ray images of lateral views of a white-throated sparrow spontaneously singing one complete song. The shape of the oropharyngeal-esophageal cavity (OEC) is indicated by superimposing a 3D polygonal model of the cavity. The song is first played at normal speed and then repeated in slow motion. During the third repetition the image of the head and neck at normal speed is enlarged and rotated (MOV 27 mb)

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Riede, T., Suthers, R.A. Vocal tract motor patterns and resonance during constant frequency song: the white-throated sparrow. J Comp Physiol A 195, 183–192 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00359-008-0397-0

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Keywords

  • Hyoid skeleton
  • Vocal tract filter
  • Songbird
  • Resonance filter
  • Gular pump