Vocal tract filtering and sound radiation in a songbird

Brian S. Nelson, Gabriël J.L. Deckers, Roderick A. Suthers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

40 Scopus citations


Bird vocalizations resonate as they propagate through a relatively long trachea and radiate out from the oral cavity. Several studies have described the dynamics with which birds actively vary beak gape while singing and it has been hypothesized that birds vary beak gape as a mechanism for varying vocal tract resonances. Nevertheless, few studies have attempted to quantify the effects of beak gape on vocal tract resonances. We replaced eastern towhee, Pipilo erythrophthalmus L., syringes with a small speaker and obtained recordings of frequency sweeps while rotating each subject in a horizontal plane aligned with either the maxilla or mandible. We describe vocal tract resonances as well as how sound radiates as a function of beak gape. Results are inconsistent with the hypothesis that songbirds vary beak gape as a mechanism for 'tracking' fundamental frequencies in vocalizations. Instead, decreases in beak gape seem to attenuate resonances that occur between ∼4 and 7.5 kHz. We propose that songbirds vary beak gape as a mechanism for excluding and/or concentrating energy within at least two distinct sound frequency channels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)297-308
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2005


  • Beak gape
  • Directional sound radiation
  • Songbird
  • Vocal production
  • Vocal tract resonance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)

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