The flexible control of sequential behavior is a fundamental aspect of speech, enabling endless reordering of a limited set of learned vocal elements (i.e. syllables or words). Songbirds are phylogenetically distant from humans, but share the capacity for vocal learning as well as neural circuitry for vocal control that includes direct cortical-brainstem projections. Based on these similarities, we hypothesized that songbirds might likewise be able to learn flexible, moment by-moment control over vocal production. Here, we demonstrate that Bengalese finches, which sing variable syllable sequences, can learn to rapidly modify the probability of specific sequences (e.g. ‘ab-c’ versus ‘ab-d’) in response to arbitrary visual cues. Moreover, once learned, this modulation of sequencing occurs immediately following changes in contextual cues and persists in the absence of external reinforcement. Our findings reveal a capacity in songbirds for learned contextual control over syllable sequencing that parallels aspects of human cognitive control over speech.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience