Motor stereotypy and diversity in songs of mimic thrushes

Roderick A. Suthers, Franz Goller, Rebecca S. Hartley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

13 Scopus citations


The relationship between the motor and acoustic similarity of song was examined in brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) and grey catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) (family Mimidae), which have very large song repertoires and sometimes mimic other species. Motor similarity was assessed by cross correlation of syringeal airflows and air sac pressures that accompany sound production. Although most syllables were sung only once in the song analyzed, some were repeated, either immediately forming a couplet, or after a period of intervening song, as a distant repetition. Both couplets and distant repetitions are produced by distinctive, stereotyped motor patterns. Their motor similarity does not decrease as the time interval between repetitions increases, suggesting that repeated syllables are stored in memory as fixed motor programs. The acoustic similarity between nonrepeated syllables, as indicated by correlation of their spectrograms, has a significant positive correlation with their motor similarity. This correlation is weak, however, suggesting that there is no simple linear relationship between motor action and acoustic output and that similar sounds may sometimes be produced by different motor mechanisms. When compared without regard to the sequence in which they are sung, syllables paired for maximum spectral similarity form a continuum with repeated syllables in terms of their acoustic and motor similarity. The prominence of couplets in the 'syntax' of normal song is enhanced by the dissimilarity of successive nonrepeated syllables that make up the remainder of the song.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)231-245
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Neurobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 1996


  • bird song
  • motor control
  • respiration
  • syrinx
  • vocalization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)

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