Most songbirds hatch in the spring and then merely listen to the songs of adult male birds until sometime in late summer or autumn, when the adults stop singing, not to resume until the end of winter the following year. It is usually male birds that are doing the singing in northern latitudes, though female singing is common in the tropics. Many young songbirds do no singing of their own until nearly a year after their birth. With the coming of their second spring, their testosterone levels rise and this in turn prompts them to begin singing, with their song development following a predictable pattern over a period of weeks. At first, their songs may be a quiet, jumbled series of chirps and whistles. Over time, young birds begin to use the syllables of their species' songs, though the order in which these syllables appear will vary. Finally, their songs crystallize (take form) into the clear, orderly song of their species.
There is a songbird, called the white-crowned sparrow, whose song development follows this general script while providing some variations that are instructive about the interplay of internal influences and learning in birdsong. White-crowned sparrows raised in captivity will follow the pattern of song acquisition just described: they listen to songs in their first spring and summer but do not themselves begin singing until they are perhaps six months old. In nature, however, things are different. For example, the white-crown found year-round in the San Francisco area sings a particular regional variant or dialect of the basic white-crown song and begins singing within six weeks or so of birth and may progress to fully crystallized song as early as three months after birth, meaning about September.
Why would there be a difference between singing in nature and singing in the laboratory The pressures of nature. As year-round residents, the San Francisco white-crowns do not fly into an area in spring and then establish territories. Rather, they establish territories as early as their first autumn. One function of birdsong is to announce, I have a territory here. Young white-crowns, like many species, will extend this practice by countersinging, meaning a male, upon hearing the song of a nearby male of its species, will repeat the exact song he has heard, thus setting off a back-and-forth duel, like two children in an argument, each of them saying, I'm still here.
Internal influences and learning are also on display in white-crowns in the way they acquire their songs. We know that there is often a so-called sensitive period for animal learninga kind of window in which an animal is able to acquire certain skills or information. In laboratory-raised white-crowns, the sensitive period starts at about ten days after birth and extends until about fifty days after birth. A white-crown that became deaf prior to the opening of the sensitive period eventually will sing individual notes, but it will never learn to sing its species' song. Meanwhile, white-crowns that are raised in nature through part of their sensitive period and then taken to the laboratory will begin singing the following winter in the dialect of the area in which they were hatched. Two points are worth observing about this. First, note that these birds are learning the white-crown song months before they ever start practicing it themselves. Indeed, the learning window will be closed completely (in their first summer) before these lab-reared birds ever sing a note (the following winter). Second, learning is important enough in song acquisition that white-crowns learn not just their species' song but local or regional variants of it, which they are able to recall months after last hearing them.
But what about internal influences Interestingly, all white-crowns that are reared in isolation from birth eventually sing nearly identical versions of a kind of standard white-crown song. In other words, there seems to be a built-in version of the white-crown song that becomes modified with local dialects only when birds are raised in the wild. Beyond this, isolated white-crowns that are exposed to tapes of other species' songs will ignore the other birds' songs entirely and go on to sing the basic white-crown song. White-crowns are thus genetically disposed to learn their own song while ignoring the songs of others.