Recently, numerous studies have observed changes in bird vocalizations especially song in urban habitats. These changes are often interpreted as adaptive, since they increase the active space of the signal in its environment. However, the proximate mechanisms driving cross-generational changes in song are still unknown. We performed a captive experiment to identify whether noise experienced during development affects song learning and the development of song-control brain regions. Zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) were bred while exposed, or not exposed, to recorded traffic urban noise (Study 1) or pink noise (Study 2). We recorded the songs of male offspring and compared these to fathers' songs. We also measured baseline corticosterone and measured the size of song-control brain regions when the males reached adulthood (Study 1 only). While male zebra finches tended to copy syllables accurately from tutors regardless of noise environment, syntax (the ordering of syllables within songs) was incorrectly copied affected by juveniles exposed to noise. Noise did not affect baseline corticosterone, but did affect the size of brain regions associated with song learning: these regions were smaller in males that had been had been exposed to recorded traffic urban noise in early development. These findings provide a possible mechanism by which noise affects behaviour, leading to potential population differences between wild animals occupying noisier urban environments compared with those in quieter habitats.
Potvin, D. A., Curcio, M. T., Swaddle, J. P., & MacDougall-Shackleton, S. A. (2016). Experimental exposure to urban and pink noise affects brain development and song learning in zebra finches (Taenopygia guttata). PeerJ, 4, e2287.